Organisation Development Consultant

Leadership Succession: a life-and-death question for South African NGOs

3 first steps for avoiding crisis

[7-minute read]

Recently, the theme of leadership succession has been pretty ubiquitous. It keeps cropping up in conversations with clients in the NGO sector, in colleagues’ work, even with friends.

Why now?

On one level, this is a very worrying sign – it undoubtedly means I’m getting old.

On a less self-involved note, it also suggests that something is going on in the South African development sector. A change-of-the-guard is coming.

Many people who moved into leadership at the beginning of this century, in the infancy and early childhood of South Africa’s young democracy, are preparing to move on. They’ll go into retirement, or move onwards and upwards, or choose to get involved in some less demanding work. This might also usher in a kind ‘demographic correction’ … A lot of older, white leaders replaced by their younger, black counterparts.

Creativity or crisis?

This presents opportunities for renewal, for some needed changes, and for innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, it also presents opportunities for crises, chaos and the death of organisations that aren’t well prepared for this process. Small organisations – which most NGOs are – often have a very difficult time surviving their pioneer’s departure. And this usually isn’t primarily about the new incumbent, though they may end up shouldering most of the blame and all of the consequences.

Why losing their leaders (and especially founders) often kills organisations

Here are just a few reasons that this happens with some regularity. Often they occur in combination.

  • All donor relations (and other key relationships) – and confidence – are invested in the departing leader. She goes, and most of the money and support promptly dry up.
  • The old leader’s departure occasions an exodus of key staff. Perhaps they stayed for you, rather than your purpose or cause. Or perhaps they’re just unprepared for change. In any event, the organisation is left empty and incapable of doing its work. It withers away, regardless of new management.
  • ‘Dad’ leaves and the ‘kids’ embark on a power struggle to determine who should rule the roost. The ensuing chaos rips the organisation to shreds.
  • The founder director has one or two skills that no one else in the system possesses, and without these, it can’t go on. This can be as basic as being able to write convincingly, or as complex as the loss of very scarce, highly technical skills.
  • Insufficient preparation and thought go into the process of appointing a new Director. So, someone who looks good on paper and interviews well is chosen – regardless of their understanding of the core business, their cultural fit, or their experience of running the specific kind of organisation that they’ll now be expected to lead. And then, zero support is offered to them – on the grounds that the old leader coped well enough, and therefore, so should they. This is an obvious recipe for disaster.
  • The board loses confidence in the new leader, or in the capacity of the old staff (in the absence of the old management shoring up the cracks). They decide that it’s not worth making a go of it. So, they wind the organisation down.
  • The new leader can’t win staff over or get to grips with what the old leader has left for them to deal with. She throws up her hands and leaves after six months. The next incumbent finds things in an even worse state – so, he only sticks it out for three months. And so it continues until the system is bled dry by a series of incumbents who find the organisation unmanageable. (Sometimes this is because of bad hiring practices; it’s also often a consequence of the complex mess left behind by a departing leader who – to be fair – may not have known how to do it any differently.)

There are other scenarios too: death by nostalgia (“We just can’t go on without you” – flattering, but sad); death by missing the point (i.e. fiddling with the core process, when it’s working just fine); death by bureaucracy (a new leader feels out of control and so imposes a bunch of new procedures and systems that drain energy, and alienate staff and clients alike). Or the organisation literally makes the new leader sick, so he’s absent all the time. Or the new leader gets so gatvol that she decides the only way forward is to channel Josef Stalin. And so on. The permutations are almost endless.

But, none of this is necessary. It may be that a little slump in effectiveness is inevitable – leadership change is significant, and it does affect the whole organisation. But it need not produce a life-threatening crisis.

What’s the alternative?

You might be really fortunate, or really skilled, or possess a simply sterling combination of wisdom, foresight, and good luck. The perfect new leader may emerge fully formed. She may even be an existing employee. So, the transition goes seamlessly: she is loved by one and all, as well as being excellent at her job. And everyone thinks fondly of you, the departing leader, and wishes you well in the next stage of your journey. This story ends with everyone living happily ever after – at least until the next economic, environmental or political crisis comes along.

I’ve never actually seen exactly this happen, but that’s not grounds for saying it’s impossible.

However, although fairy tales are nice, preparation is probably better.

Preparing for succession

This is a topic to which I’ll return in future posts. For now, I just want to say three things:

1. See the system

In order to prepare for leadership succession, you have to deeply understand what it is that you, as a leader, have been holding. What you have done for and to your organisation. (Every leader shapes cultural norms in one way or another.) And get to grips with how the whole system is actually working in context. (Many top managers lose contact with the heartbeat of the day-to-day work, or with parts of the organisation’s ecosystem. Now’s the time to reconnect, so you really know what you’re handing over.) Getting a handle on all of this, as well as working really hard to see your people (with all their gifts and challenges) and your organisation (with all its assets and blind spots), is the basis for making a workable change plan and orchestrating a responsible transition.

2. Don’t do it alone

You probably can’t (and shouldn’t) do this alone. It is practically impossible to see a system that you are so intimately connected to with any objectivity at all. Get help with this – certainly from your board, perhaps from your senior team, and preferably also from someone with a little more distance (an OD person, another consultant you trust, or a colleague with wide experience who understands the dynamics of change, and thinks systemically).

3. Design a holistic change process

Once you have some help, be aware that the change process that needs to be designed is not just about who will ‘replace’ you. (Those scare quotes acknowledge the impossibility of simply replacing anyone.) This is an excellent opportunity to look at where the organisation is going and what it will need to get there, to look at the culture and ask if it is serving your larger purpose, and to think about what is realistic and desirable, not just about what is needed.


Approaching leadership transition and succession could be an opportunity to seriously strengthen and future-proof your organisation; to ensure it’s relevance and effectiveness for years to come. Or, it could a harbinger of disaster if the wrong choices are made – or, even worse, if key choices are left unmade.

The legacy of your leadership should not be the failure of whoever comes after you – or of the organisation that you’ve spent years building. Avoiding the complexities of leadership succesion can unintentionally set them up for precisely that outcome.

If you’re approaching transition or grappling with the question of how best to move on, feel free to get in touch.

We could also start a conversation via social media (Facebook; LinkedIn; Twitter) or privately: there’s a lot to be learned from others who have travelled (or are travelling) this same path. Several of your colleagues in neighbouring organisations almost certainly fit that bill.

Support is available as you face this difficult, but potentially freeing and enlivening, threshold. Please seek it out.

About these resources

These articles are for people who work with and in organisations of any kind – as leaders, managers, formal or informal change agents. If you are trying to work more consciously and effectively with change in your organisation, I hope you’ll find some ideas here that make your work (and your life) a bit easier, and your organisation a more effective, creative and positive place to be.

If you would like to engage around these ideas, ask a question or discuss the possibility of working together, please drop me a line.