Entrenching a succession culture

WELCOME to the first instalment of Bible School Business School (BSBS) in 2013. BSBS is a special monthly series that draws insights from the Bible and applies them to business, leadership and personal development.

Column by Brett Chulu

This month’s focus is on the premium ancient Hebrew culture, as depicted in the Bible, placed on leadership succession. To unpack the components of this premium, Chapter 2 of 2 Kings shall be referenced.

Succession mindset

As we delve into this chapter the reader must note that the structure of logic used to construct this text is the typical Hebrew ABA genus. In the last instalment of BSBS, the concept of ABA logic was explained indepth. The ABA species of thinking is formally known as chiasm. In chiastic thinking, the central message is sandwiched by a pattern of repeated thoughts.

This is exactly how the main message on leadership succession in 2 Kings 2 (NKJV) is constructed. We shall illustrate this thought architecture briefly.

The chapter under consideration consists of 25 verses. We note that the second verse corresponds to the 23rd verse; the block of verses 4-7(first part) correspond to the block of verses 15-18; and the cluster of verses 7 (second part) and 8 mirror the cluster made up of verses 13 and 14.

For greater clarity we shall briefly analyse the last pair of thought clusters. The phrases “stood by the Jordan”, “Elijah took his mantle”, “struck the water”,“divided this way and that’ and “crossed over” are found in verses 7 and 8. Now note the similarities with verses 13 and 14; “He also took up the mantle of Elijah”, “stood by the bank of Jordan”, “struck the water”, “divided this way and that” and “crossed over”.

Further analysis shows that this pattern of repeated pairs breaks thereafter. This signals that the block of verses sandwiched by the block made up of verses 7 and 8 and the block comprising verses 13 and 14 house the central message.

Thus the summit of architecture of the thoughts is located in verses 9 to 12.

What is contained in this central block of the chiasm (the ‘B’ of the ABA) nails down the brass tacks of leadership succession in ancient Hebrew culture. In fact, it boils down to a summative principle encapsulated by verse 9 (NKJV): “And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.”

To understand the importance of leadership succession among the Hebrews of the ancient Near East, the role of prophets as leaders in that culture must be understood. In the Hebrew culture, prophets were leaders who played the role of stewards of the nation’s vision and also acted as watchdogs who monitored the implementation of the nation’s vision. They also gave detailed instruction on developing the right culture to support the vision.

In fact, as leaders of the Hebrew prophets predate kings. Before there were kings among Hebrew people there were prophets. Prophets were first known as nabi, meaning seer. This erstwhile depiction of  prophets as seers emphasises their visionary role.

Thus special attention was paid to the succession of prophets, as the absence of a prophet meant a directionless nation. As a result, succession of prophet-leaders was a strategic organisational agenda in the ancient Hebrew culture.

It is within this cultural context that Elijah’s offer to Elisha to ask what he could do for him as the prophet-in-waiting should be understood. In Elijah’s mind, the next leader had to be developed and empowered before he left the scene.

Embedding succession culture
Leaders of Zimbabwean organisations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, need to take a leaf from this ancient leadership practice. They must frequently and intentionally pose the question to their subordinates: “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” This question underscores the lesson that developing a successor must be a deliberate process assigned to every leader to manage. Successors must be pro-actively developed.

In the Zimbabwean business context, this practice can be entrenched using a set of complimentary tools. One such tool is a position profile. To this end, boards of directors in Zimbabwe need to use their policy-making mandate to insist that every position with a supervisory role has, as one of its key result areas, the development of successors.

As a complimentary tool, a company’s performance and reward management system must incorporate performance outputs around succession. Similarly, an organisation can develop talent management policies around promotion criteria, requiring promotion to be partly based on the effectiveness of a candidate’s effectiveness as a developer of able successors for their current position.

The organisation should make it known upfront that any candidate for promotion cannot be promoted if he or she has failed to develop enough people to succeed them.

The quality of would-be successors developed by the incumbent leader is of cardinal importance. Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. The word translated spirit here is “ruwach” in Hebrew. Ruwach, depending on the context, can take on several meanings such as wind or mind.  In the context of Elisha’s request, ruwach reflects ability and effectiveness.

Elisha, in essence was saying: “As your successor, develop and empower me to be more effective than you are.” Elijah had no problem in granting that request. For him, leadership was not for personal glory, but to guide the organisation towards achieving a set vision.
In ancient Hebrew culture, developing leadership successors was a deeply-ingrained mindset.

This same mindset persisted down to the time of Jesus. Before Jesus began his ministry, He chose to develop 70 leaders, of whom 12 were given special training, to succeed Him.

John 14:12 (NKJV) records Jesus’s mindset on leadership succession: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father.”

A poisoned succession culture is also possible: “Now Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30).  Business leaders choose which succession culture they want.

Reflect on it
How can your organisation develop a culture where incumbent leaders are influenced to develop successors to be more positively effective?

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has worked with both listed and unlisted companies. — brettchulu@consultant.com.