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Leadership: Succession Challenges

For months now, the press has been full of the struggle the Labour Party is having dealing with the succession of Tony Blair. Whatever we think of him personally, and whether we like the way he has lead or not, he has been one of the most significant Labour politicians ever. Furthermore a number of his decisions, such as supporting the invasion of Iraq, will have a long lasting impact on the history of the country and possibly even the world.

All leaders who cast long shadows have a proportionally big challenge in handling their succession. History will also judge how well Blair has handled this issue. However, at this stage, he appears to be getting it wrong. One of the key jobs of a good leader is to create in the organisation the capability to make him (or her) self redundant.

Leadership consists of two main roles, setting direction for tomorrow and safe guarding the assets of today. However, the ability to understand the trends and interpret what they mean for tomorrow is something that normally has a limited time span. Usually a new mind finds new patterns and significances.

'I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.'
Ralph Nader

Understanding who has the potential to take the business to the next level is a key job for a good leader. Grooming that person and giving them the experiences required to develop their potential is part of that job.

However, identifying a person who has ‘the right stuff’ is only part of the equation. They also have to be accepted as the right person to lead by their current peers and the relevant stakeholders. Building this support is part of the current leaders job too. Furthermore, this need to develop and nurture leadership is required throughout the organisation, not just for the ‘top slot’.

Pacing this development is obviously a challenge, as if you get it wrong and the person is ready before there is a suitable vacancy, you will either have to suffer the discomfiture of being constantly challenged by them or you may lose them to another organisation that can meet their needs / ambitions now. If you find yourself ‘fending off’ your successor this is a sign that, at the very least, you have got the timing of the succession wrong. If you start undermining your successor is another sign!

'If you want one year of prosperity,
grow grain,
If you want ten years of prosperity,
grow trees,
If you want one hundred years of prosperity,
grow people.'
Chinese proverb

There is so much attention paid to the ‘super-hero’ leaders, who attract all sorts of personal publicity, that it is hard to remember sometimes that there are other models of leadership. The trouble with ‘super-hero’ leadership is that it tends to feed the ego, and that makes it hard to do anything that diverts attention and potential glory to others. The leaders-in-waiting can feel more like challengers and rivals rather than protégées to be nurtured.

Leaders in the making need not only to be mentored and developed but given the chance to develop their own styles, and follow their own visions and insights. It is a challenge to manage the conflicting need to achieve short term goals (on which reputations are built) and taking risks and learning from mistakes (which build character and experience). After all, if you aren’t making any mistakes, you are playing it too safe.

Leading change is one of the key jobs of a leader, so it follows that giving young bucks a chance to champion change is both good for them and good for the organisation. However, it goes without saying that some of the things they are changing and challenging maybe ones you have set up!

So one of the tasks for you to have on your agenda for today, is who should be worrying about these issues tomorrow.

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”
Warren G Bennis

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