A Successful Leadership Transition
Transition and succession are a normal part of business and ministry. How we handle the process speaks volumes.
I have personally transitioned into positions after a former leader resigned, one was fired, another passed away, and most recently, after a beloved 19-year legend retired. Each circumstance was unique, but one thing remained the same. The transition was necessary, and the change wasn’t easy.
Transitioning leadership well is one way we lead like Jesus.
Transitioning leadership well is one way we lead like Jesus. The process is filled with joys and hopes of what’s to come, as well as fears and uncertainties of what lies ahead. Yet change is never easy, is it?
Much has been written about the transfer of leadership, but no other book contains as much wisdom, encouragement, and counsel on the topic as God’s Word. I’d like to share with you an “always” and a “never” principle of leading like Jesus during leadership transition, while highlighting a personal story of walking though the transition myself.
Principle #1: Always Look at the Heart First
In 1 Samuel 16:7, God’s Word contrasts what we prioritize versus what God considers while appointing the next leader:
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
At Lead Like Jesus, we start with the heart of the leader first. Why? Because a changed heart means a changed leader!
At Lead Like Jesus, we start with the heart of the leader first.
In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus also emphasized the need for this internal heart transformation over external leadership aspects when he spoke to the leaders of his day:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence... First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
God entrusted the process of leadership transition to his people, and he expects us to seek him in that process. Are you a leader or a board member entrusted with the task of appointing the next leader? What do you prioritize and consider first? Does the heart of the next leader even make the top 10 cut?
Principle #2: Never Fear Leadership Transition
Leadership transition always involves two leaders. One who is stepping out and one who is stepping in. Leadership, after all, is a season as Ecclesiastes 3:1 so wisely puts it:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Fear of letting go of the familiar, fear of losing influence, or fear of not knowing what lies ahead are not uncommon for leaders who are stepping out of their season of leadership.
Fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectations, or fear of the challenges and battles that lie ahead are not uncommon for leaders who are stepping into their new season of leadership.
King David who was stepping into the leadership role after God rejected Saul, was no stranger to fear and uncertainty. Yet, in Psalm 56:3 David writes:
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
You see it was not the absence of fear, but the intimate knowledge of who God was, that allowed David to overcome fears and insecurities as a young leader.
It was the same God-grounded confidence that allowed Moses to transition the leadership of God’s people into the hands of young Joshua.
At Lead Like Jesus, we talk a lot about fear, this anti-God state of mind. Why? Because we understand the crippling power that fear can have in the lives of leaders, regardless of what end of the leadership transition spectrum they find themselves in.
I feel personally blessed to succeed a leader who transitioned well. Phyllis Hendry Halverson, the esteemed 19-year president and CEO of Lead Like Jesus, retired in 2020 opening the door for me to transition into her role. She made it quite clear that she desired to lead like Jesus in this process.
Phyllis made herself completely available for my onboarding. We became fast friends and she agreed to mentor me in my new role. Weekly for my first year, Phyllis answered all my questions, proved to be a capable sounding board, and served as confidant and coach as I walked into my calling. If Phyllis feared letting go or if I was too proud to ask for her help, we would have missed out on this rich opportunity to position the ministry for future success.
A Final Charge
Transition of leadership, even though not easy, is an opportunity to reflect God and his ultimate design and purpose for leading and influencing.
Psalm 145:4 is a beautiful reminder that “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.”
Transitioning leadership in the way that honors God is one way we can love one another, and show the world how to live, lead and love like Jesus!
With 25 years of senior leadership experience, Rich Cummins is passionate about developing people and organizations. He serves as the President and CEO of Lead Like Jesus, a global leadership training ministry in 25 nations.