Who Is Your Second?

by Joshua J. Messenger

October 5, 2021

After an informational meeting for a club at my college, I asked the leader, “How long has the group been active?” He started with the history of the club and the large turnout they had last semester but then the story took a dark turn.

“We used to be going pretty strong, but the guy leading it left and no one else really took charge, so it evaporated.” Such is the problem with many organizations today.

As a college student, I’ve been through my fair share of clubs and organizations, and one thread that seems to connect them all is how recently they were established. Many of these organizations are identical to others in that they used to exist in some form or fashion. Why all the sudden starting and stopping?

The answer is one we can all relate to: no one is preparing their successor.

The simple fact is that one person can’t lead an organization forever. In a college setting, this concept is magnified with a traditional student only having four years to leave their mark.

We see rapid leadership transitions across the military, the Congress, and private sector businesses. As soon as a leader disappears, the organization buckles and could quickly break unless there’s someone to fill the leadership void.

It can be easy to feel like we’ll be in a position forever and, therefore, having a successor is irrelevant. But only shortsighted leaders neglect to prepare for an eventual departure. And even if we don’t think we’re leaving, we still need someone to keep the lights on when we’re on summer vacation.

So how do we go about selecting and preparing a person to help lead our program when we depart?

1. Keep Your Eyes Open. Tenures are finite; someone must be prepared to assume the next higher leadership position at any time. The best way to find the right person is to simply look for talent. Find qualities such as enthusiastic investment in the organization and its success, positive communication skills, an optimistic and uplifting attitude, and familiarity with both the organization’s procedures and members. Most importantly, who is the person who brings out the best in you as a leader? Typically, they’re the ones helping with menial tasks and advising you in the first place. That’s an easy place to start.

2. Bring Them in the Fold. How else will they be prepared to lead if you don’t show them how to do it? The Vice President certainly has to be informed just as much about the goings-on of the President. So too must your successor be involved in your current decisions. An added benefit is that they may begin shaping long-term vision and slowly changing the organization to adapt for the future.

3. Give Them Tasks. Sticking anyone, even the most qualified of individuals, into a leadership position without training is dangerous. There’s a learning curve to every position, so it’s better to give your potential successor a taste of what you deal with, the decisions you make, and the way to go about initiating change.

4. Trust Them. Micromanaging the future leader of the organization will at some point be damaging, undermining any confidence you’ve instilled in them. Consistently monitoring them is the best way to increase their dependence on you, so slowly draw away. Check in with them often, but sparingly make suggestions. If you continue to tell them what to do, they’ll keep calling you after you’ve left. Trust is key to establishing a confident leader.

If you’ve prepared your successor well, they can seamlessly replace you. A rough transition has been the end of many organizations, and the best way to prevent this is to begin planning today. It’s never too early to have a contingency plan and begin feeling out your subordinates for a potential successor.

At the end of the day, it’s not all about you; it’s about the organization you just happen to lead. What’s best for the organization may include allowing others to “trespass” on your domain, but if it’s for the wellbeing of the team, then it’s necessary.

Who’s your second in command?

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