“Let me be straightforward,” a visibly disturbed deputy director concluded as he wiped his tears with a handkerchief, “this man we are burying today was too great to replace. To the best of my knowledge, no one including me his deputy can ably fill the gap he has left. We have lost. This graveyard is all smiles” and all his colleagues nodded sadly.
I have no doubt it is a well-meaning eulogy. Unfortunately, it is a symptom of a leadership tragedy. If there is no one to ably replace you as a leader after you are gone, then you are a failed leader. One of authentic indicators of good leadership is leaving a legacy of successful successors. A successful leader intentionally mentors successors in preparation for his departure. He is not just contented with the present health of the organization. He wants the organization to continue to be healthy even after he is gone. Robert Orr says, “Perceived success without successful successive successors is failure”. The organization should mourn your departure but not because there is no one to replace you. At best they should mourn your departure because you were a great leader, but not because you are irreplaceable.
It is a common scenario worldwide that when a leader departs from an organization, the institution spirals down. There is no one to take his place successfully. It’s a one man show and when the leader is gone, there is no one within that they trust to take over. A quick fix is sought. “Bring in an outsider”. This is the situation in my country especially in politics.
Political parties don’t have leadership training structures that should be intentionally preparing potential successors to the leadership of the parties to ensure sustained success. Parties face leadership crisis when their leaders leave office. One top official in the then ruling party called his fellow top officials madeya (maize husks) meaning they were useless and not capable to take over the party’s presidency when the country’s first democratically elected president Bakili Muluzi was going to retire. As if to confirm the sentiments, the outgoing president himself sought the services of an outsider to lead the party, the United Democratic Front (UDF).
His successor, Bingu Wa Muntharika abandoned the UDF and formed his own party as soon as he became state president. That meant the UDF was no longer the ruling party. It was relegated to the opposition benches. In the following elections, Muluzi was back with a mission to dislodge his successor. But the Electoral commission barred him from contesting since he had already served two terms as president. He ended up unsuccessfully campaigning for another opposition party’s candidate.
Why did he try to run for office for the third term instead of simply endorsing an insider? They were maize husks! Obviously, he hadn’t been mentoring any one to take over from him. When he retired for good, he paved way for his son. That the son was thrust into the party’s presidency (or the party’s presidency was thrust on him) without preparation, is evident. He has ably dragged the once mighty party into the intensive care unit. Certainly it is heading for the mortuary due to his poor leadership. While most people may regard Bakili as a successful leader, he was a failure. The demise of his party didn’t start with either his immediate successor or his son. He launched its death.
A leader who desires to leave a long lasting impact on an organization should be ready to do the hardest task: training a group of potential leaders in whom he will invest his time and leadership skills.
Jesus is the ultimate model of leadership whether in a company or nonprofit. In the three years of ministry He was very busy. He was preaching to masses; raising the dead to life; feeding thousands; Sick people were brought to him; if he was not following people then the multitudes were looking for him; he was always travelling. Yet in the midst of the busy schedule, He prioritized mentoring the twelve disciples.
While he didn’t neglect ministering to the masses, he put his disciples on top of his priority list. He poured his life and philosophy of leadership in them all day every day. Why? These were the people who were going to lead his church after he was gone, and lead successfully they did. The enemies of Jesus Christ thought by killing him they were swatting his “sect”. They were in for a surprise. Jesus turned this group of average Jews into a powerful force that was going to propagate his message, mission, and vision through the world.
Using the same model of Christ, Paul mentored Timothy who in turn was to choose faithful men whom he could groom who would also follow the same pattern. Paul says to Timothy, “You have heard everything that I teach in public; hand it on to reliable people so that they in turn will be able to teach others” (II Timothy 2:2).
Why do some “leaders” not want to invest in training successors? Because they survive on lack of it! Training successors comes with a cost: you make yourself increasingly “irrelevant” and “useless”. Some leaders fear that if they mentor their potential successors, they will no longer be needed in the company or organization. What should be viewed as a legacy is viewed as a threat. The same old sin, huh: pride. Leaders are overtaken by the desire to make the company fill the gap when they leave. They don’t want someone better to take over.
Sometimes it is due to sheer neglect. People don’t want to invest their time in mentoring their successors because it’s hard work. Imagine spending time with them and investing your skills in them intentionally. It’s not easy. You sacrifice your comfort and privacy among others. Small wonder many leaders are not willing to take this course. After all, the organizations don’t budget for such a program. But training potential successors is not a waste of time and resources. It’s an investment.
An organization that invests in grooming leaders has found a formula for lasting success. With a troop of faithful men who are willing to learn from you, you can still continue to lead the organization way after you are gone through your successors. Leaders must intentionally mentor a group of potential leaders to prepare for a life without them. Let no one say at your funeral, “Alas, there is no one to take his place”