Healthy Leaders


4 Steps to Ensure Healthy Transition

Rick JamesRick James

We all know about Founder’s Syndrome – where a successful leader is unable to let go and move on. Politicians, CEOs, and NGO directors are all susceptible. Christian leaders are in no way immune. It’s so rife and destructive, it sometimes seems like a disease. But leadership change is completely normal. Leadership transition is a universal experience of all organizations. Every founder will move on at some stage. It may always be painful and challenging, but it does not have to be fatal. We therefore need to focus on how to avoid the syndrome or treat the underlying issues in a timely and incisive way. Dealing with leadership transition is an essential part in any organization’s development. This article reviews the management literature to identify four key elements in healthy leadership transition.

On the face of it the mechanics of transitions are fairly straightforward. It is about the departure of one and the arrival of the successor. So why is it so hard?

A change of leadership is a huge adjustment. We should not underestimate the difficulty of this leadership change (especially when it is the actual founder who leaves). It poses a massive organizational risk. It can jeopardize the organization’s existence. Leadership succession is as serious as a heart transplant. It should therefore be done with considerable care and great skill. Too often we do it badly. We do not give it the time, skills or resources that it needs. Sometimes we only perform part of the operation.

It’s like giving up your baby for adoption…

Leaving an organization is painful, especially if you have created it. Not surprisingly, leaders shy from the emotional cost of leaving. It implies you are no longer good enough. Even when it goes really well, transition is tough – it involves anxiety, fear, grief, anger, and frustration. Emotions are intensified during times of uncertainty and change. Emotions can take a long time (if ever) to adjust. Leadership transition is too significant to be anything but bumpy, especially with founders.

Some founders liken moving on to “giving your baby up for adoption.” This is worse than your child growing up and leaving home. No, you are forced to give your child to a foster parent. Few parents would trust anyone to look after their child with the same love and commitment that they have. So it is not surprising that founders do not trust handing their organization on.

For many leaders, their role is part of their self-identity. It is certainly a significant part of their daily life. Many do not fundamentally differentiate themselves from the organizations they lead or create. It is like an extension of themselves. So they find it hard to countenance life without their role.

For many leaders, their role is part of their spiritual identity too. It is not just a job. Their leadership is their calling from God. Any change in this role therefore affects how they see themselves in relation to God. We are dealing with highly sensitive issues which affect a leader’s sense of purpose.

Furthermore in practical terms, it can be hard for leaders to move on because they have nothing to move on to. They are not ready to retire, so what is next for them? Where is their career going from here? It may not be so easy to get another job. Leaving employment may have serious financial consequences – ongoing financial commitments or expectations require a certain level of income.

What is needed in healthy transition?

We know it is difficult, but if we are to stand a chance of addressing Founder’s Syndrome and enabling healthy leadership transition we need to:

  1. Help the leader let go.
  2. Ensure the board steps up.
  3. Identify the appropriate successor.
  4. Actively manage the whole process.

We should appreciate that leadership transition is not just about particular individuals and personalities. It is part of a wider system and if we are to be effective we have to take a broader organizational perspective.

  1. Help the leader to let go

Few leaders are able to let go without considerable outside support. They need people they trust challenging them, cajoling them, encouraging them to move on. Counseling and coaching is important. They may well need support in moving through the different stages of grief. At this stage it is also important to help the leader focus on what is best for the organization. It is about helping the leaders focus on their legacy – what they want to leave behind, rather than letting them wallow in all the above-mentioned personal reasons for clinging on. Weese and Crabtree state that “helping them face their own shadow side through the power of Jesus Christ is critical to effectiveness in succession planning.”

In this, it is helpful to get leaders to find something to move to. I remember a friend who was a board member who found his director another job, rather than going through the tortuous process of trying to get rid of him.

For others it can help to offer some intermediate steps. In my own organization it was appropriate to offer the founder the opportunity to step sideways into leading a special project. He also has the opportunity to do consultancy work for us. In this way the financial difference is mitigated. Some have found it appropriate to give the outgoing leader a sabbatical with a proportion of his salary covered for a time; others, the ex-leader gets a consultancy retainer. To address the loss of status and role, some outgoing leaders are given an honorific title and figurehead role.

Many founders wish to stay on in some capacity. Many would even like a seat on the board. But presence in governance, effectively overseeing the new director, is almost always detrimental. Even if the leader stays on in a more limited capacity, with the best will in the world, it is easy to subconsciously sabotage just by being around.

The prevailing wisdom from management experience and literature is that a graceful exit with “little or no ongoing relationship” is the best option. They advocate a genuine step away at least for six to 12 months minimum. It is very important to give enough space (authority, decision-making and financial) to the new leader – if not, anyone really able would probably turn it down.

Yet there are situations where the best solution may be for the leader to stay on, provided that the board does not feel coerced in any way and that the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. The bottom line is that the old leader must not be the de facto leader. He should not be part of strategy-setting meetings, nor involved in staff-management-board relationship issues. The successor must have ultimate authority to terminate or change this relationship.

One of the main reasons why leaders find it difficult to let go is that in their hearts they do not trust their senior management. So top team development is a critical element of planning for any succession. Right from early on, great leaders should be preparing the way for their own departure, making themselves dispensable by delegating more and more. Such preventative measures minimize the disruption and risk in leadership transition.

  1. Ensure the board steps up

Times of leadership transition require the board to be much more intensively engaged than usual. They cannot afford to be hands-off, but have to step into greater responsibility. This requires extra time and effort, particularly from the board chair. Continuity of the board chair is critical during transition.

The ease or pain of leadership transition will be greatly affected by the quality and performance of the board. It is therefore important to make sure the board is performing to the best of its abilities when transition is at hand. An assessment of the board’s performance can help in identifying areas for strengthening. At times of change the board must be active in decision-making, not a rubber stamp. It needs to have a clear view of the finances of the organization.

The board will need to mandate a team to oversee and manage the leadership transition. This needs clear planning, with timeframes, milestones, budgets and responsibilities assigned. The transition plan will need regular appraisal, review and adjustment.

  1. Identify an appropriate successor

Finding the right successor is obviously vital. Boards are often tempted to do the recruitment themselves in order to save money. But as this is such an important appointment, it may be worth seeking professional help from recruitment specialists if available. To find the right leader requires time, insight, skill and a wide network of connections. It is much more than putting an ad in a newspaper.

It is always worth having a transition and search committee. These people will need to put time and energy into developing updated specifications and identifying appropriate characteristics. It is essential to define what sort of leadership role is needed. Sometimes boards try to replace a charismatic founder with another visionary, when what may be needed is someone who is stronger on the management and systems side. Some literature points to the value of hiring an interim director for the first two or so years post-founder:

An Interim Director?

The track record of leaders taking over from founders is not great. Many leave within a short period of time. Partly it is because the organization has been created in the image of the founder and old attachments need time and space to dissolve. The successor takes over “on the rebound.” It is a thankless task to take over from a charismatic leader (as David Moyes, formerly of Manchester United, will attest). Tim Wolfred says that: “The failure to provide for an interim breathing period is one primary reason that so many EDs who succeed founders survive less than two years (2008).”

It will also be important to clearly define the role of the outgoing leader in the recruitment. While it may be good to solicit his input and ideas, experience shows that it may not be good to have him as part of the recruitment team. There is a much stronger case, however, for having a staff representative on this team.

At times of transition there are high anxiety levels among staff. The changes will often mean they are taking on extra responsibilities at a time of greater uncertainty. It is a pressurized and intense time. Sawyer suggests that at such times there is a need for “deliberate over-communication” (2008). He estimates that you need to communicate three to seven times as much as normal with staff during major transitions.

  1. Actively manage the whole transition

There are a number of key elements in the actual change of personnel that need active managing. First it is important to appreciate and connect with the departing leader. Symbolic occasions need careful planning to ensure the best possible ending is crafted.

There is also a need to connect well with the incoming leader. Induction and handover is essential so it should not be rushed. Networks of contacts and relationships need to be passed on. But it is also possible to drag it out too long. My own organization had a six-month overlap which felt excessive. As part of the welcoming of the new director it is valuable to get staff to articulate what it is they are looking for from a leader. This could be done through one-on-one interviews or in writing as “Letters to a new leader from staff – my hopes for you.”

But just because the new person is in place, does not mean the board can step back and relax. Just as with a heart transplant, once the operation is done, there are months of medical support needed to make sure the new heart functions well and is not rejected. The board needs to be in regular touch with the new director and also with the staff to actively monitor how things are going and step in when things are not going as hoped.


Leadership succession is incredibly difficult. There are no secrets to guarantee success. But there are some useful principles which will increase the chances of a healthy transition, avoiding or at least surviving Founder’s Syndrome.

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Rick James