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The Succession Planning Process: Transcending Leadership

Learning to let go can be the most important lesson of all.

When personal identity is enmeshed with business—as is often the case in family business—it makes it extremely challenging to see the exit ramp out of the leadership and know when to make the turn.

Those approaching the succession process need to respect that the magnitude and transformative potential of the transition goes way beyond the trite advice that leaders need to “retire to something, not from something.”

Many fear this transition, because they associate it with loss, aging or death—rather than seeing the potential for completion, rebirth/renewal or transcending.

It’s only by transitioning out of the active leadership role that an individual leader can achieve what we call “transcendent leadership,” gaining perspective on their accomplishments and creating meaning that goes beyond their work, their lifetime and themselves.

It’s the time when a leader moves into being valued for his wisdom, rather than his work. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson calls this Stage 8 of Development, or the “generative stage,” when we have the opportunity to integrate our life’s experience into meaning and fulfillment—or when we fail to and face despair.

Of course, any transitional plan requires that the nuts and bolts are in place: a successor is named, trained and empowered; a transition plan is funded; and strategies are defined. Once all the moving parts are in place, it comes down to the courage it takes to lead without title and authority and by wisdom and character alone.

How to Start Letting Go

Just as new leaders can benefit from understanding leadership styles, using archetypes such as “Servant” leader or “Participative” leader to better understand leadership and consider their development goals, departure style archetypes can offer a helpful starting point for transition journeys.

Succession Planning Best Practice: Understand Your Style

Understanding different departure styles and considering archetypes can help transitioning leaders identify gaps, fit and opportunities on a meaningful new leg of this journey. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s book, The Hero’s Farewell, describes four main archetypes for the departing leader:

  • Monarch: Typically deposed by revolution or replaced due to death or illness. They’re not only driven by title and position, but are also mission driven and believe their mission never ends—it keeps expanding.
  • General: Leaves not by own choosing, but by decisions of others—can’t live without the war—looks for every opportunity to re-engage. Their mission is to lead and, by definition, leadership never ends.
  • Ambassador: Leaves gracefully, happy to continue providing mentoring to others or to help from an advisory position. Position is more central to them than mission, and they seek new challenges to maintain their position.
  • Governor: Leaves gracefully, but with some mixed feelings when they have either accomplished or advanced their mission sufficiently or realized that an alternative leader is needed. Governors tend to move into other areas of interest and leave the organization behind. They seek additional challenges that offer more opportunities to work and accomplish again.

Consider this:

Only the rare person is a single type—every leader is a combination. Explore which characteristics seem to connect with you and identify how those characteristics enhance or present challenges to your transition plan.

What do you need to learn about yourself and your future options in order to manage the fear and uncertainty of transition?

When leaders understand their choices, and are clear on how they want to depart—and when they understand the value to their well-being of completing this part of their journey and handing off power—they can begin integrating their accomplishments into a more fulfilling life story.

* This article originally appeared in a Continuity Family Business Consulting newsletter and is shared with permission.

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