By Jay Stearley
Most every organization will face the challenge of leadership succession at some point in its history. How succession is managed, and the people transitioning, will result in either disaster or success. And much is always at stake.
Every situation and culture are unique, and there are multiple ways to go about succession. No matter what, three traits are required for success. They are humility, respect, and skill.
One example of succession comes from the Oglala Lakota people of the Great Sioux Nation in the mid-1800’s. To set the scene, people from the United States were beginning to traverse through and settle in their homelands of present-day states of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota. Tensions rose as the new settlers destroyed the land, killed off food sources, and provoked hostilities.
A man by the name of Crazy Horse was aging. He could see the world changing around him, people looked to him for wisdom, and he knew he must pass his influence to another. That other person was his son, to whom he transferred his very name, and took another, “Worm.” Could you imagine an outgoing CEO or Senior Pastor giving himself such a name as he exited a primary role of influence? That is humility.
Many in the tribe and surrounding peoples were of more prestigious blood, but the newly named Crazy Horse always gave respect to others and earned it through action. Others began to follow him. Giving respect garners respect. Bestowing a title or name does not automatically win or transfer influence nor faithful followers.
In addition to giving respect to others, Crazy Horse was very skilled. He had been mentored by High Backbone, a much revered Miniconjou Lakota military leader. Crazy Horse learned not only how to protect his people through physical force, but also the art of discussion, instructing others, and charisma. These last three skills were not natural to him as by nature Crazy Horse was quiet, introspective, and he preferred solitude. Skill is needed more than a name or past position.
Through humility, respect, and skill, the Oglala Lakota people, including Crazy Horse and his father Worm, navigated succession. The results were prolonged years of living in their traditional ways and working towards a peace agreement with the United States government. I am in no way qualified to say if the end result for the Oglala Lakota people was successful or not, but my heart breaks for most all indigenous people groups who’ve been displaced. I can confidently say the succession of influence from the original Crazy Horse to the now-famous one, was a success.
You may not be facing a lack of food or the invasion of your home by force, but you are needing to find, develop or even identify a successor in your context. It is never too early to do so and it is healthy to build into the vocabulary and fabric of your culture; for all of our times to be succeeded will come, by choice or not.
- How are you treating the reality of succession?
- What barriers might stand in your way of successful succession?
- What may you need to change about your leadership style and influence to pave the way for healthy succession?
- What additional three principles might you add to my list of three?
* History inferred from The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III.