Playing the game of succession
Listen to this exchange between corporate titan, Logan Roy, head of Waystar Royco, a family-controlled international media conglomerate, and the heir apparent, his son, Kendall, from the HBO series, Succession:
Did you want to talk? Marcia said you wanted to see me.
Marcia. She’s got her own game going on.
What does that mean?
You know what it means! You’ve got your game going on. I’ve got my game.
What’s your game?
Everybody’s got a game.”
Click here for the episode’s trailer.
Management guru, family systems theorist, and academic in leadership studies, Manfred Kets de Vries, would have a field day consulting with Waystar Royco. He intuitively knows that leadership in enterprise is more than just a left-brain activity as he plumbs the emotional depths of corporate management. His book, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, centralizes the clinical paradigm and with this brings an embrace of the unconscious in leadership and management studies. What drives leaders forward in their management style and actions taken? We have a rationale for our actions, however, our reasons for acting are often obscured even to us. Very often the rationale lies far beneath the surface of our awareness. The Roys would call this “playing games”.
Let’s continue to drill down on the issue of succession, a challenging issue that faces every leader in business, in ministry, or in nonprofit work. One can logically plan towards one’s replacement, but so often emotional issues cloud the action plan. Kets de Vries offers several quotes leading us to think beyond our superficial rationale:
- “Some people turn into good wine as they age; others, becoming increasingly sour with each passing year, turn into vinegar.” Two pathways await those who hold leadership. One leads to fruitful openness, the other to bitterness and acidity for the enterprise. Those who play the game of sour vinegar have refused the pathway of surrender and letting go.
- “Many CEOs stay on far too long, fine-tuning the legacy they hope to leave.” Their lack of self-awareness and inadequacies freeze them into perfectionism. They can’t let go if it isn’t perfect, as the enterprise is intertwined with their own ego. These leaders play the game of perfectionism, and are led by their egos.
- “Succession arouses basic fears of death.” Coming face to face with the succession question means grappling with one’s own mortality. A humble acknowledgement of one’s limited shelf life is essential for any leader, and plans to divest oneself of one’s responsibilities must be planned for earlier than later. This is the game which confronts the fear of one’s own demise and irrelevancy.
Kets de Vries confirms the challenges around succession: “The statistics regarding the survival of family firms are abominable. Many of the problems with which these firms struggle have to do with succession. One out of three family firms makes it to the second generation; only one out of ten makes it to the third. Rags to rags in three generations, I’ve heard it said.”
Joseph Santora and James Sarros believe the challenges around letting go is rooted in the power and ego of the incumbent. “I suspect that it is extremely difficult for them (leaders) to develop others to be leaders of equal power. Leaders simply enjoy the limelight too much to share it, so when they ultimately depart, a leadership vacuum is created. Moreover, under charismatic leadership authority may be highly centralized around the leader – and this is an arrangement that, unfortunately, weakens the authority structures that are normally dispersed throughout an organization…. Therefore, it is incumbent on enlightened leaders to suppress their personal agenda, interests, and desires. They should instead promote the development and implementation of organizational goals. Successors must respond accordingly.”
Succession issues within family business are replicated within family philanthropy as well. In The Voice of the Rising Generation: Family Wealth and Wisdom, I’m encountering the challenge of next generation inheritors who are tasked with stewarding family wealth. But they are stewarding someone else’s dream. “A good steward takes care of someone else’s property while that person is away… But this is also the problem: if you are asked to become a steward, then who are you living for? Whose dream are you stewarding?”
Connection to one’s own emotional intelligence and discerning God’s leading is a way forward with the philanthropy question. Becoming deeply rooted in one’s vocation as a calling from God will empower next generations to be honest brokers and avoid playing games with their inheritance.
 Succession, season 1, episode 6, “Which Side are You On?”, Directed by Andrij Parekh, Accessed October 29, 2018, on HBO.
 Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R. The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise. 2nd ed. (New York: Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2006), 214.
 Ibid., 224.
 Ibid., 224.
 Ibid., 225.
 Santora, Joseph C., and James C. Sarros. “Mortality and Leadership Succession: A Case Study.” Leadership & Organization Development Journal; Bradford 16, no. 7 (1995): 29.
 Hughes, James E., Susan E. Massenzio, and Keith Whitaker. The Voice of the Rising Generation: Family Wealth and Wisdom. (Hoboken, NJ: Bloomberg Press, 2014), 19.
6 responses to “Playing the game of succession”
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Mark, I bet money complicates the games that are played. It does seem as though games are centered around pride and ego. I am sure part of your research will deal with ways of working with and around people that believe they are more important than they really are….obstacles for some family members to give back the way they want…Good job bringing a book about destructive leadership (I think) and relating it toward the calling you have.
Perfect connection to your research and dissertation! So thankful you are writing on this.
I needed to hear your context and take on succession. I lined up all my pastors a few weeks ago, and in doing so discovered that half of them should be working on a succession plan–in 15 short years one half or substantially more of my churches will need new lead pastors…
Have a great week away. I for one love American turkey dinners, especially on our Thanksgiving.
We are all thankful for you, Mark!
Your final sentence summed it all up quite well: “Becoming deeply rooted in one’s vocation as a calling from God will empower next generations to be honest brokers and avoid playing games with their inheritance.” If the heir apparent’s job is to “steward” the wealth of the family and therefore “someone else’s dream.” For me, the tension lies in part with my theology of “ownership.” There is a delicate dance to do when the first generation’s “dream” of legacy seems to conflict with the heir’s understanding of God’s dream for the wealth he entrusted to the “wealth creators.” Somehow we have to honor the intentions of the family, while staying in God’s will regarding granting, while also maintaining personal integrity at the same time. What a tall order!
I had never really considered the issues of succession when thinking about leadership. I guess in your area of expertise this is important as you help people navigate their finances. I don’t think it is considered enough in ministry contexts and needs to be. How would you suggest people in ministry prepare for appropriate succession as they think about transitioning either to new ministries or toward retirement.
Such an interesting angle you provided in your blog. Thank you for that. I’m not familiar with the HBO series you highlighted but it sounds interesting and funny! My immediate thought when you were discussing succession was the president position at the university in which you are serving on the search committee. That’s a complicated process! How will you apply this text to your own leadership? And will these concepts influence how you evaluate potential applicants for the president position? (asking for a friend who works in academia lol)
Mark, I read your post with a mind toward translating it to the church and successive leadership. Everything you cite as problems with leaders and ego, unwillingness to leave, and being stewards of another’s dream seem to be true when looking at the current leadership in churches and their investment (or lack thereof) in the next generation of leaders, particularly those who may not hold the same dreams but are really excellent leaders. This really made me think and I wonder what parallel solutions might be out there.