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.”
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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.