(Editor's note: A previous column on leadership transition discussed the responsibilities of a new leader.)
Describe a challenge as a race in church or leadership circles, and many people will offer the old adage, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Good advice if you have no need to go fast, or if you run alone. Moments arrive, though, that share more in common with a third type of race.
When it comes to leadership transitions, think relay race.
Consider the parallels. The baton being passed from one "runner" to another: the empowerment to lead a church or organization. The runner holding the baton approaches the new runner at full speed, meaning the new runner must quickly accelerate at just the right time. The baton pass must happen within a designated exchange zone—the runner must not hand it off too early, nor hold onto to it too long. After the baton pass takes place, the first runner stops participating in the race—but will receive credit for the team's victory. And here's the big one: Primary responsibility for a successful exchange rests on the runner with the baton. Handing off that truth to leadership means the outgoing leader owns ultimate accountability for the transition.
For that reason, the outgoing leader (and those supporting her or him) will serve the church or organization well by addressing several important questions that too often go unasked. Why? The honest answers, generously communicated with the new leader, will set a pace for smooth transition. Dr. Virgil Gulker, founder of Kids Hope USA, shares his responses to these questions—valuable perspective from a leader who let go at just the right time and completed a successful exchange.
What does a successful transition look like for you?
I need a clearly defined role in the organization during and after the transition. And I want to feel confidence in the new leader, as well as no regrets upon departure. I must ensure solid hand-offs of relationships with people important to the organization take place. It helps when the incoming leader expresses genuine consideration for my life after departure.
What do you, as an outgoing leader, fear going into a transition?
I hope the day never arrives when I need to return and save the organization due to a loss of mission. And I fear a lack of personal identity and/or purpose after departure.
How did you know it was time to leave?
When I realized much greater potential existed for the organization than did my capacity to lead; combined with fatigue and the need for fresh personal energy. My time to leave arrived, and that truth helped me to let go.
What are signs of trouble?
If clear lines of authority don't exist, expect problems. A new leader must not look to the outgoing leader for ideas or approvals. Another sign of trouble: A new leader who initiates change too fast.
At the same time, please protect me from myself. A founder or longtime leader will want to jump in and make something happen—please don't tempt me with these opportunities or put me in that position. This means to not include me on the leadership team and strategic planning duties. Put a transition plan with timing in place (the exchange zone) and insist that the organization honor it, such as with hours worked, speaking engagements, etc.
What does it look like for the new leader to drop the baton?
When he or she references the problems of the past as the primary justification for decisions. Or simply a lack of decision-making or passive leadership.