The Successful “Successor”


Four points to consider the next time you follow someone in a position

“You wouldn’t have believed the condition things were in when I received this assignment!”

“I can’t imagine how she managed with the kind of organization she was running!”

“He never did do a lot of the things that really should have been done to keep up the spirit of the program.”

“I don’t mean to be critical, but just between you and me, there was some real evidence of inability or neglect.”

Let’s face it. We have a problem—a serious problem. Not everyone has it, but enough of us do that we ought to do something about it. The fact is that we so often fail miserably in a very important area of our lives—one which affects people and organizations in a very undesirable way. The problem? We fail to succeed in succeeding.

Unfortunately, the statements listed above are not unusual, and they indicate one of our most important problems in the process of transferring authority or assignments from one individual to another.

The dictionary indicates that “succeed” means “to come next after another, … to inherit sovereignty, rank, or title, or to follow after another in order.” Some of the secondary meanings are “to turn out well, to attain a desired object or end.” Really, how to succeed in succeeding (or following after another) is one of our most important challenges. Perhaps all of us have observed successors who have really succeeded; and, unfortunately, most of us have probably seen successors who have failed.

In this lay church, where almost everyone has the opportunity of serving, and also in this society, in which more and more we move to early retirement programs, chances are very good that almost everyone at some time or another will have the interesting personal challenge of succeeding someone else in an assignment, whether it be in the Church, at work, in a civic organization, in school, in a club, or anywhere.

Naturally, it is hoped that every successor will succeed and even be more successful than his predecessor. In fact, one of the best evidences that the predecessor has succeeded can be found in the fact that the foundation he laid was firm enough that the person succeeding him has been able to enjoy even more success than he did.

The sad truth, however, is that many who succeed others don’t succeed at all, but actually fail in their efforts; or, at best, their success as a successor is minimal.

Since no one enjoys a failure experience or finds satisfaction in receiving unfair criticism, let us consider some ideas that may help bring success as you succeed someone else in a position.

As a successor, remember as you move into your new assignment that you bring with you different perspectives, background, ideas, and personal needs. As you observe what has been done in the past, you will discover areas where you believe the program can be strengthened through certain innovations. You may even recognize situations where, in your opinion, your predecessor has been lax, or has made some simple or even serious errors in judgment.

Now, how can you best go about bringing your own abilities, talents, and perspectives to bear on your new assignment, and in the process have a personally satisfying, fulfilling experience?

Consider the following suggestions:

1) Commit yourself to the quality of patience. Before making sweeping revolutionary changes, be sure you have made a sincere investment of personal time and study in order to understand the scope and nature of the new assignment. Be patient enough to pay that kind of price. The other day I heard the counsel, “Before knocking down a wall, remember that somebody must have had a reason for putting it there in the first place.” It not only weakens an organization, but many times can be a source of real embarrassment when someone new in a position of responsibility moves decisively and makes some sweeping change that he later regrets.

2) In every honest and genuine way, be quick to applaud the performance of your predecessor and slow to criticize or condemn him. Many have discovered, as they move into a new assignment, that if they condemn the predecessor in the presence of those who have served with him, approximately half of them (or more) are loyal to the predecessor and immediately alienated by the criticism. Those who are thoughtful, even though they may not always have agreed with the predecessor and may appreciate some of the changes you bring to the assignment, nevertheless might lose respect for you because of their strong feelings of fair play. Actually, it’s a sign of real maturity when an individual learns to appreciate and acknowledge the successes of others.

The scriptures urge us to avoid condemning and judging others:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1.)

“Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:36.)

“I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another.” (D&C 64:9.)

“But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10:37.)

“Leave judgment alone with me, for it is mine and I will repay. Peace be with you; my blessings continue with you.” (D&C 82:23.)

3) When you determine that changes need to be made for the good of the program, or for consistency with your own style of administration, consider the following:

a) Wherever possible, make the change or correction quietly, and as near the local level as possible. In almost every case, those assigned to work with you can be helpful in the process. Although the temptation is great, avoid discussing with others the areas in which you consider your predecessor was naive, ignorant, inadequate, or whatever. So often, what we exhibit in this kind of action is really insecurity within ourselves in allowing someone else his right to do things differently. Often the differences really are matters of preference or policy, and not principle. Good men and women have been unjustly criticized for having merely been different in their style of operation, while they espouse almost the identical basic, righteous principles of their successor.

b) If, for some reason, the problem cannot be solved quietly and at the level of your own administrative assignment, then bring the matter to the attention of your immediate supervisor and solicit his assistance and guidance. If this happens to be in a Church-related program, one obviously should not overlook the strength that can be received from counseling with local priesthood leaders who have some specific responsibility for the program.

c) When you want to innovate or effect a change in policy or procedure, seek as broad a base of consensus or support among those affected as possible. In other words, let the idea have a “life of its own.” Talk about it. Get responses, suggestions, adaptations. The decision can become a group decision which almost everyone will support when some of the “IH-Factor” (“Invented Here”) is included.

4) Some of the most helpful counsel to all of us who have the challenging assignment of succeeding another is to be found in the powerful message of Moroni:

“Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” (Morm. 9:31.)

A successor should consider the appropriate role of his predecessor in the succession process. The smooth transfer of authority or responsibility from one individual to another, coupled with the graceful resignation of the predecessor and humble acceptance of the successor, are important factors in the continued effective operation of any organization. An example of this principle is seen in a personal experience.

For about 18 years, I had the privilege of serving in the Department of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion under the administration of William E. Berrett. I had many opportunities to meet with this outstanding scholar, orator, and administrator, and gained deep respect and appreciation for him. Later, while I was presiding over the Mexico Mission, I received the assignment from the Board of Education, delivered by President Harold B. Lee, to return and assume the responsibilities of the Associate Commissioner of Education for Seminaries and Institutes. In effect, I was to succeed President William E. Berrett, who was retiring.

I shall never forget the day I arrived in Provo, just after the announcement of the appointment had been made, and went to visit with President Berrett. As I entered his office, he greeted me warmly, shook my hand, and motioned me to be seated in his chair. I immediately resisted and indicated that I was very comfortable to sit where I had always sat, but he insisted that I sit in his chair and he where I usually had sat. Then he said, “Joe, long before I learned to lead, I learned to follow, and I want you to know that I am willing to do anything I can to be of assistance in any way.”

That simple experience taught me the dignity and the nobility that can be demonstrated in gracefully passing the baton to someone else. And Brother Berrett was as good as his word. I always felt that in him was great support; he was one to whom I could go for information or counsel in making the transition as smooth as possible.

Another great example of leadership in being released is Sister Belle S. Spafford, whose deepest concern was to make the transition smooth and fruitful for Barbara B. Smith, her successor as general president of the Relief Society. Sister Smith says, “In the months since I was sustained, Sister Spafford has been marvelous in every way.

“Soon after President Kimball called me, I visited with Sister Spafford in her home. We spent four and a half hours discussing my new responsibility. After I got home Sister Spafford called—she had recognized my anxieties—and it was so affirming to hear her say, ‘Now don’t worry. You can’t do it all at once. You just have to take it a step at a time, and the Lord will bless you.’

“She left her office in complete readiness for me, told me she was willing to help in any way she could, ‘but I don’t want you to feel that I’m imposing in any way.’ I don’t think she has ever said anything to anyone about me that has not been completely supportive. Since her release she has never given any counsel to anyone that should come from the president. She always makes me feel free to make my own decisions, yet she’s such a strength to me.

“Recently I was with her again for another lengthy discussion, and as I was leaving, I said, ‘Sister Spafford, I love you and appreciate the complete support you give me.’ She said something beautiful: ‘I have been blessed of the Lord, and he has given me so much that I would be highly ungrateful if I did not love and support her whom he has chosen to succeed me.’ How can I express what that support means to me?”

So, whether your task is to precede or succeed another in office, remember there are important principles to learn, recall, and apply. Certainly we should perform as successors (or predecessors) in such a way that we build unity and strength. The Savior counseled: “Be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27.)

Success to you in succeeding! (Or in preceding, for that matter!)

Dr. Joe J. Christensen, associate commissioner for seminaries and institutes in the Church Educational System, is second counselor in the Sunday School General Presidency.