Last Fall at the Vanderblomen, Next: Succession conference, I was somewhat jokingly told there were two circumstances that can best help an incoming pastor hoping to replace a founding pastor…either the Founding pastor suddenly dies or he/she has a major moral failing. In Manfred Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique, I am given equally encouraging advice for the outgoing CEO (pastor) when Kets de Vries talking about power transferring also somewhat jokingly says, “the major task a CEO faces is finding his likely successor and then killing the bastard.” Chapter 11 in Kets de Vries book is titled “The Dynamics of Succession” so I knew that would be a good place for me to dive in.
Kets de Vries does an excellent job is this book discussing the need for emotional intelligence and that carries over to his chapter on succession. As you would expect from Ket de Vries, in regards to succession he doesn’t just lay out plans and strategies for succession, but he gets into the emotions an incoming or outgoing leader might be feeling. Fear is a key emotion Ket de Vries identifies in both parties during succession. Regarding the outgoing leader, Ket de Vries says, “succession arouses basic fears of death…CEO’s tend to be fairly close-lipped about their fears and feelings, making succession shrouded in mystery.” For the incoming leader Ket de Vries identifies another reason for fear, “once a person becomes head honcho, there are no obvious new positions to strive for. It’s success or failure; there are no other options.” It seems pretty clear to me that these fears mostly revolve around power, the fear of letting go of power and the fear of obtaining power.
Fears revolving around power also exist in the church. After studying numerous case studies of pastors letting go or retiring, one of the most common difficulties I’ve observed directly connects with Ket de Vries comment on CEO’s when he says, “CEO’s are highly sensitive to shifts in power and some simply can’t face the reality of losing power.” Just like CEO’s, many pastors attach their identity to their work and have a hard time letting go of power. Pastors are just as likely to become workaholics and tend to build their church around their own personality making it even more difficult to one-day walk away.
Kets de Vries points to a trait that is often present in successful successions and that is being able to accept that everyone is dispensable. Charles de Gaulle’s comment “that graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men” should hopefully resonate with church leaders. As church leaders we should humbly lead knowing that one day we won’t be around but hopefully our legacy will. While we all desire to walk out on top, the truth is most of us are going to have to humbly learn to let go at some point in our life, facing our fear and letting go of power. Which is why succession planning is such an important task we all should be thinking about. As Ket de Vries concludes regarding succession that “the acid test of excellent leadership is what happens when the leader is no longer there.”
 Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, 2nd ed. (Harlow, England.: FT Press, 2009), 225.
 Ibid., 224
 Ibid., 219
 Ibid., 225
 Ibid., 226