Those words were spoken in 2012 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in a private conversation with Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration. “(His) words struck me like a lightning bolt,” Sangay later reported. “I was shocked, emotional and overwhelmed.”
I first came across these words in a letter sent out by Sangay to Tibetans — and their supporters — throughout the world. When I read “Lead as if I’m not there,” it sounded familiar. I recognized it as a predictable mantra for any organization that wants to thrive into the future. Those words capture a universal dance between leader and follower with one evolutionary purpose: ensuring continuation.
What dedicated leader does not want their work to continue?
And what faithful follower does not step into the shoes of a respected leader without soberly considering the challenges ahead?
Any leader who desires lasting impact after stepping down must find a way to speak, mean and model these words:
“Lead this work forward as if I’m not there.”
Speaking and meaning the words is the easy part. The hard part is backing up that good intention with a clear set of behaviors and strategies that make leadership transition less shocking and more seamless.
If you are a long-time leader, and your own involvement is beginning to wind down, consider five strategies to plan for your succession:
- See the work as bigger than you. Develop the awareness that you are no longer the primary “owner” of the work. Cultivate generosity: “I’ve had a good run; now I’m going to give others their shot.” Make passing the torch your overarching goal.
- Select the best person or person(s) to carry on. Don’t assume your younger sibling, adult child or nephew has what it takes. Carefully design and execute a vetting process for all leadership candidates. As part of that process, ask questions that reveal a person’s character, self-awareness, clarity and calmness, as well as openness to feedback and new ideas.
- Spend one-on-one time with your successor(s). Connect with the one or more individuals who will carry on the work you’ve started. Ask them what they would like to discover about you or the work. Invite them to come up with questions. Set up a regular routine for one-on-one time that emphasizes deeper understanding of one another.
- Incrementally let go of oversight. Systematically and continually give up responsibilities. Look for opportunities to delegate thinking — not just tasks — by asking, “What are your thoughts?” Delegate relationship responsibilities by asking, “What’s your plan for building a stronger connection with the team?
- Intentionally develop a Plan B. Recognize that you’re probably not going to let go of the work you’ve been dedicated to for many years if you don’t have alternative interests and commitments. It’s time to explore internally (“What’s important to me, and what do I want to do for the rest of my life?”) and externally (“What’s going on ‘out there’ that might be a good fit for my involvement?”) Ideally, your Plan B would include elements of leisure, self-care and “giving back.”
If you are a designated successor or leadership candidate, you might want to consider your own five strategies:
- Acknowledge your self-doubt, and define yourself. Filling the shoes of a founder or respected leader often includes a nagging, unspoken question: “Can I do it?” Don’t make more of that routine question than it is. Work on developing your own style and approach. Reflect on the kind of leader you want to be, and keep experimenting with how to flesh that out in real-time behavior.
- Build a resource and support network. Who do you talk to in confidence when confronted with a moral bind, relationship dilemma, or sudden crisis? What’s your plan for staying healthy in mind, body and spirit? What do you need from your coach, friends and health resources? The best leaders put in place — and actively rely upon — dependable sources for support, clarity and challenge.
- Incrementally increase your responsibilities. Demonstrate that you’re ready to dive in. Try to avoid the extremes of drifting in the status quo or recklessly pushing an agenda. Take on more of the responsibilities that belong to you and actively delegate what belongs to others. Make learning something new a daily goal.
- Increase meaningful contact with the person you are succeeding. Take a year or more to learn everything you can about and from the person who’s been leading. Drive those conversations as deeply as you can: “Where are the land mines in this work?” “What kept you up at night?” “Who are the individuals you found most helpful and most difficult?” Take responsibility for setting up regular, one-on-one connections with the person you are succeeding.
- Stay separated from the person you’re succeeding. At the same time that you cultivate connection, realize that you are your own person, distinct from the current leader. Their views, experiences, prejudices, insights and beliefs are theirs. It’s up to you to decide which dimensions of their experience and advice you want to keep and which you want to discard. The best way to develop healthy separateness is to focus on refining your own beliefs, values and self-knowledge. Learning about self contributes to vibrantly leading others.
For leaders who desire a transition away from 24/7 responsibility, the challenge is to let go, strategically and emotionally.
For successors whose time has come to take on a more impactful leadership role, the challenge is to seize the moment and step up.
The coordination of those two commitments — letting go and stepping up — captures the essence of succession planning.
John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.