Smooth Leadership Successions Support Solid Legacies


Admittedly, I have had a career primarily in higher education, so these reflections will focus on higher education, but the need for smooth leadership succession is essential, and some of these reflections can be applied in other industries, nonprofits, and community groups.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending two inaugurations of college presidents. At each inauguration a woman was invested with the power to lead the institution. Both of these women are knowledgeable, dynamic, resourceful, charismatic, strategic, and well-prepared leaders. I know this to be true because I have known one of them for twenty years and the other for ten years. Thus, I am confident that both of these women college presidents will demonstrate good judgment, intellectual nimbleness, and courage that will help their individual universities continue to pursue stated strategic directions in higher education.

If presidential selections go well, an institution of over 150 years may be inaugurating its 10th, 11th, or 12th leader as president. Moreover, in academia, inaugurations are festive, formal, and historic events in the lives of colleges or universities. Inaugurations of college presidents are usually characterized by dignified and formal processions into and out of large auditoriums that include faculty, students, legislators, alumni, and others who are stakeholders in the success of the institution. If you attend an inauguration, it will be hard to overlook that the participants are wearing long, formal regalia, and somewhat medieval gowns signifying their academic specializations. These gowns are usually referred to as academic regalia, and they are distinguishable by their range of colors, hoods, and velvet hats.

If you have an opportunity to attend an inauguration, you will see well wishers and speakers from various stages of the incoming president’s life to inform, and ensure to those in attendance that the institution has indeed made a wise choice in leadership. What I noted about both of these inaugurations was the support of past presidents and past leaders (trustees, alumni, legislators) who have been associated with the institutions at different times during its history. They attend the inauguration to lend their support to the incoming leader. The incoming leader, in turn, builds on the legacy of those who she follows–like a runner in a relay race.

At one of the inaugurations, there were three former presidents who represented about 25 years of the leadership history of the institution. To have these past presidents literally stand with the new president during this transition of power to mentor and lend moral support, exemplified the legacy of the institution. The determination of past leaders to support and solidify the incoming president’s success serves to further strengthen the institution for future growth, innovation, and challenges.

It is not much of a leap to notice that not many industries engage in such ceremonies when announcing and anointing its leadership change. This show of leadership continuity, the “passing of the torch” from one leader to another, is reassuring in a time of uncertainty, shorter tenures of leaders, fiscal challenges, and predictions about the future of higher education. It did occur to me that institutions are most fragile during times of transition. Wall Street often reacts to changes in leadership and stocks rise or fall dramatically because of the assumed competence of new leaders.

One cannot help but infer that the pomp and circumstance surrounding inaugurations is helpful in also stabilizing leadership transitions and enhancing confidence in the institution. After all, steady leadership and confidence in leadership are good for students–our future leaders.