In the previous two Success in Succession articles, I talked about identifying a successor, the sequence for preparing that person and the team for the change in leadership, and the recommended timing. Now comes the tricky part, which is the actual process of handing off the baton. Talking about passing on your leadership role is much easier than actually doing it. How you release and transfer power is critical. For the baton to pass from one runner to the next, an athlete has to let go for the next athlete to be able to run. Holding on too tight can render the hand-off ineffective.
It’s easiest to talk about it and begin implementation because you’re still in charge, feel secure, and even proud of how well you are executing the succession strategy. Before you know it, the time to actually let go is upon you and so is the real test of your leadership, character, and need for security. It’s at this point when the temptation reveals itself to hold the baton a bit tighter. This is truly the place where God’s grace and favor are needed to help you model true leadership.
I have had a roller coaster of emotions and many conversations with God in my morning devotions about this topic. Convinced that I have identified the right successor, that the timing is right, and that the team has been adequately prepared, the real test is at hand. It’s now too late to change my mind.
There is a price to be paid if a leader changes his/her mind and, at the last minute, tries to hold onto the baton. For one, the successor you have recruited and trained is ready and excited about taking over and running. He/she has stood in the lane, ready to take the baton, and would be crushed if denied. I have had this happen to me, witnessed it in other situations, and personally know how tough it is to handle someone else’s indecision, insecurity, or betrayal. I pray this doesn’t happen to you and that God gives you wisdom when it’s time to pass the baton and you do it gracefully.
Someone who is just observing a relay race might ask, “How hard can it be to simply hand a baton to the one coming in behind you?” It seems to be a simple process on the surface, yet relay teams practice this one discipline for thousands of hours to perfect it. If it were easy in the heat of the race, team members would not drop the baton. As a matter of fact, the American men’s 4x100 relay team baton passing mishaps have become a real point of discussion. In 2008 in Beijing, a U.S. runner dropped a baton during an exchange. In the 2009 world championships, two runners exchanged the baton before the passing zone started, and the team was disqualified. In 2011, the U.S. team made the exchange after the passing zone, which disqualified them. These issues have continued to plague the U.S. teams – most recently in the 2021 Olympics, they had a mishap that kept them out of the finals. There are many factors that can impact a changeover being done successfully. This is true in the nonprofit world as well.
Richard Stander from South Africa talks about this process in his article, “Athletics Omnibus -Relays.” Richard says the following about what he calls “the changeover area”:
The Incoming Athlete
- Is at all times responsible for the changeover of the baton.
- Must give a loud signal when approaching.
- Must strive to run the shortest possible distance with a stretched arm during the changeover.
- Place the baton directly in the hand of the front athlete. Don’t do unnecessary upward or downward movements during the changeover as it will slow down the changeover.
- Run full speed through the transfer zone, even after the changeover is completed. Try to pass the outgoing athlete to avoid the tendency of slowing down during the changeover.
Let’s consider these rules as they pertain to an “incoming” leader or the one who is about to pass the baton to the next runner. Think of the one “incoming” as “the one coming into the finish line.”
First, the incoming athlete is at all times responsible for the changeover of the baton. Blame for a bad changeover cannot be passed off to anyone else. The responsibility to see that the transfer is smooth and with as little chaos as possible is on the leader who is coming to the finish line of his/her role.
I have often seen leaders blame others after the fact for how the process went, but if they were to honestly look at it, they would see that the fault was theirs and that they played a major role in the tensions and difficulties. This is not condemnation but encouragement for each of us, with the right goal in mind, to do our best to stay the course in our agreed-upon plan and procedures to the end.
Secondly, giving a loud signal to alert the outgoing runner that now is the time for baton passing is key. The outgoing runner, or the one who is receiving the baton to “go out into the race,” is already looking forward and running hard in the exchange zone. The incoming runner communicates until there is assurance that the outgoing runner has heard, even among the noise of the crowd. It’s the exact science in this part of the race that will determine the outcome.
It’s helpful to communicate the role of the leader “going out into the race” to the board, donors, and the team. Repetitive communication during the process brings security to the process. When everyone knows what is going to happen there’s no surprise and they relax. A specific event in front of the board and other leaders where the successor is formally given the baton is also beneficial.
In the third rule, striving to run the shortest possible distance reminds us that a shorter time frame for a transition limits frustrations and difficulties. I have witnessed leaders recruit a staff member to be the successor with the intention of the transition taking place within a few years. The proposed successor has the understanding and expectation of becoming the senior leader sooner rather than later. However, time passes, and the leader never discusses a strategy for succession or even brings up stepping down at some point, which, of course, results in confusion and frustration.
Sometimes leaders find it hard to be honest when they discover areas of concern in the skillsets of the one they identified as a possible successor and instead quietly decide to hold on longer, and no one wins. Communicating the plan, including a timeline, with the board and successor upfront alleviates this outcome.
The fourth rule of carefully placing the baton directly into the hand of the outgoing runner without unnecessary movement is also relatable and reaffirms the need to stick to the plan. I was leading two different corporations when it became time for me to pass the batons. I started handing off authority and responsibilities in leading the organizations. At times, it was challenging to see decisions being made without my input. This is not to say that bad decisions were made, rather, it was about my having to let go of control. I have managed, though, to not change the plan or process for succession and it has been the right thing to do. When you mentally and emotionally let go, the sooner you get out of the way of the successor, the better.
In the process, there have been occasions where I have felt disconnected from the team and the organization which is exactly how it is going to feel when you pass the baton. I am happy to see that the plan has worked and my successors are thriving in their roles. At the same time, it feels final. It is final. I have completed my lap in the relay race of leadership.
I love the idea, as stated in the fifth rule, of the incoming athlete running at full speed through the hand-off and running past the outgoing runner. This keeps you from slowing down when you pass the baton. To see the team win, run hard all the way up to the end of your race to assure a successful outcome for those working with you. It’s true that as we get older, our energy levels have a tendency to decrease and our tolerance for risk tends to decrease. These two influencers can create a temptation to just stay in the role and delegate responsibilities. An organization being led from this mindset and model is not likely to thrive.
The Outgoing Athlete
In the practical aspects of the relay race, we see the outgoing athlete reaching back with a fairly high and straight arm with the palm of the hand facing upward and the palm pointing outward. The hand must be fully open and the fingers spread to enable the incoming athlete to see the hand easily. The incoming athlete places the baton in the hand of the outgoing athlete from the top to bottom.
Richard Stander also identified some specific disciplines for the outgoing athlete to embrace.
- Don’t look back during the changeover.
- Keep the stretched hand as still as possible.
- Markers must be placed 24-31 feet lengths back on the track.
- Stand in the starting position with one hand almost on the ground, while looking backward underneath the other shoulder at the marker. Look at the incoming athlete’s feet, not the body.
- Once started, the athlete must remain facing forward and wait for the sign before the hand is put back, or the hand can be put back automatically when passing the middle line of the transfer zone.
From this, we can see that there are a number of things for the new leader to consider as well.
First, to not look back once the process has started. Keep your eyes forward on the vision and prepare yourself for receiving the full authority of the baton pass. When you feel it hit your hand, you are now in control. In leadership, this part is critical. The successor needs to experience an actual event of being handed the baton. It must be felt and be put in hand for the running to begin and the team to win. A successor must have full control and support of the board and the incoming leader, both of which are empowering.
Secondly, keeping the outstretched hand as still as possible relates to the stability of the successor in thought and action when taking the baton. It helps when you're letting go to know that you are passing the baton into secure hands – ones that are not hard to find or take extra effort to get the baton passed on properly.
The third lesson is that the successor is not to start running before the leader reaches the mark on the track where they are prepared to hand off the baton. Markers in a relay race are used to help the outgoing runner know when to start running to meet the speed of the incoming runner. They mark a spot on the track and then when the incoming runner passes this mark they take off. Doing so before the right time can result in a loss for the team because unnecessary tensions are created when someone runs ahead of the process. Use only the authority given, stay loyal to and supportive of the outgoing leader, and communicate as clearly as possible to decrease confusion.
The fourth rule is that the outgoing runner watches the feet of the incoming runner. The feet tell the truest story of where the runner is on the course. In other words, “Be where your feet are.” This means that both are focused on what is most important. Unconcerned with issues behind us, nor focused on all the problems before us, but present and managing what is most important – the here and now.
Jesus modeled the transition of power and the impartation of vision. Yes, there were difficulties, one disciple even betrayed Him, yet His plan would not have worked without the betrayal. There was pain and uncertainty on the part of His disciples, but the plan and process were God-designed and it worked, resulting in the New Testament Church and the gospel being preached around the world.
Finally, the fifth discipline simply reinforces that once we start, we need to remain committed to looking forward and wait for the signal. For some, it’s time to pass the baton and for others, it’s time to receive it. Then there are those whose time it is to train and support the runners and be ready when asked to run. Staying faithful to the process allows us to, with integrity and grace, move into the next assignment that God has for us. The latter years of life can actually be a leader's most influential if the leader is both focused and true to heart and calling.
As I conclude this lesson, it comes down to this: If we truly believe God owns it all, then anything we have built or established is in fact the Lord’s. We own nothing, so what are we really giving up?
The ministry is the Lord’s and now, I am simply fulfilling my call in a new way as Executive Chairman of the Board for both TCSE and for Global TC. And with the right players in place, I can press forward to my next running event in a different lane.
Jerry Nance, PhD
Executive Chairman, Board of Directors
Global Teen Challenge