Less than a week ago, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch announced that he is handing the reins of control to his two sons. Will the transfer of power lead to succession or to secession? Handing over control to a new generation can be messy business, especially when family is involved. Sometimes it goes well, but often it is painful.
Some leaders transfer power in name only, but just can’t let go. As a result, they risk bringing themselves down in disgrace. Other times, the next generation loses patience and repeatedly chips away at a leader’s ability to govern. These repeated challenges to authority eventually create an atmosphere of mistrust, where constituents begin to second-guess a leader’s judgment. When this occurs, a kind of community paralysis sets in and it takes a new leader to catalyze forward momentum.
The Biblical Book of Numbers is certainly a case study in the complexities of succession. While Moses ultimately passes the torch of leadership to a new generation, there are many acts of attempted secession. First, Moses’s siblings challenge his authority (Numbers 12), then the spies, who are leaders of twelve tribes, seek to undermine his credibility (Numbers 13) and in this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 16), Moses’s cousins mount an insurrection. The first challenge to Moses’s leadership cascades into a chain of additional trials, suggesting that there was general fatigue between the people and their leader. I wonder if either could see the warning signs as they unfolded, or only in retrospect.
So here are a few questions for senior and volunteer leaders to consider as they look to the future:
• If you are senior clergy of a congregation or a CEO of a nonprofit, what is your exit strategy if your constituents pose a serious leadership challenge? Do you have a plan to put into effect if that happens?
• If you have played a senior professional leadership role for a long time, are you working with board members on a succession plan?
• If you are a senior volunteer leader, and you feel it is time for a professional leadership change, do you have a proactive strategy or will it take a disgruntled community to move you to action?
• Finally, for both senior professional and volunteer leaders: how are you cultivating leadership for upcoming generations? And, given the vast numbers of Boomers who might be interested in volunteer roles, do you also have a plan to engage them?
Given the dynamics of any change of leadership, there certainly are no guarantees about how smooth a transition will be. But, there are ways to try and mitigate the risk of clumsy and potentially destructive transitions and limit the likelihood that that succession does not turn into secession.