2021: A World Renewed
The History of Succession
- Have you ever succeeded someone else in a role or position? Has anyone ever succeeded you?
- What is the difference, if any, between succeeding someone and replacing them?
- Would you prefer to succeed a popular leader or an unpopular leader?
- What is the relationship between “succession” and “success”? Should there be a different word for a succession that doesn’t succeed?
- Is it possible for someone to succeed himself or herself—or does succession require a change?
- What are the distinctions, if any, between succession and the transfer (or taking) of power? Does the term “succession” require power to be transferred with the consent of the person surrendering it?
- Succession usually refers to a change of leaders. Can it also refer to a change among followers?
- Has your head of school or principal ever changed—and, if so, who chose their successor?
- Should succession processes be transparent to the public, or should the public only be alerted when they are complete?
- Is it better when everyone knows who is going to take over an organization well in advance, with a schedule in place for the transition—or are successions more likely to succeed when they happen more organically?
The Return of the Kings: Succession in Politics
- Simba can’t wait to be king; Prince Charles has waited a long time. Both cat and man seem to follow a variation of succession rules first codified by a 6th century French tribe—the Salii. Explore these related terms and how they relate to royal succession even today:
- line of succession | absolute primogeniture | agnatic primogeniture
- illegitimate child | coronation | abdication | usurper | regency
- Act of Settlement | Succession to the Crown Act | Perth Agreement
- In 2011, all 16 countries that still recognize the British monarchy agreed to end their bias in favor of male children. Lines of succession would run through all children equally, regardless of gender. Discuss with your team: would it make more sense for royal families to set aside primogeniture altogether and just have the most qualified descendant to take over? Or should all the descendants vote on which of them should lead, perhaps as part of a reality TV show?
- Just before it became an empire, Rome was ruled by a pair of Triumvirates—groups of three leaders sharing power. The first ended with a civil war and an assassination. The second ended with a civil war and a pair of suicides. Explore what happened in this succession process and who the major players were, then ask yourself: would co-rulers be more effective in other settings in the modern world, such as businesses or writers' rooms? What is the ideal number of co-rulers to have in office at the same time?
- Rome was neither the first nor the last time leaders tried to share power. As early as 2000 BC, Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhet I appointed his son Sesostris I, as a co-regent, to help ensure a smooth transition after his death. Investigate the following examples of co-regencies and diarchic rule, evaluating why some failed and some succeeded. Then, discuss with your team: if each of today’s world leaders were forced to co-rule with another leader, which new pairs of leaders would work well together? Which would not?
- Hatshepsut & Tuthmosis III | Catholic Monarchs of Spain
- Gonghe Regency | Co-Princes of Andorra | Alaric & Eric
- ngwenyama & ndlovukati of Eswatini | medieval paréages
- When Fidel Castro’s health began to decline in the mid-2000s, his brother Raul took his place as the leader of Cuba; some analysts were surprised at the stability of the regime throughout the transition. More recently, Raul handed off the presidency (though not all power) to his own vice president and chosen successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel. Discuss with your team: is Cuba a good model for other countries transitioning away from family rule? Compare it to the process of succession in North Korea—how did the current leader in Pyongyang assume power, and who might succeed him? Are there other countries where the office of vice president has led with automatic precision to the presidency?
- The United States tends to take a dim view of monarchies, perhaps because of its own revolutionary past. But in 2000 it elected the son of one former president to the White House, and the wife of another won the popular vote in 2016. There is talk of Chelsea Clinton campaigning for Congress, nearly 30% percent of Republicans would choose Donald Trump Jr. to succeed Donald Trump, people keep asking Michelle Obama to run for president, and there always seems to be a next Kennedy. Discuss with your team: does hereditary succession have some kind of intrinsic appeal, even to voters in a supposed democracy?
- In the United States, attention is often focused on the president—but the vice president must also sometimes be replaced. Read about the process of succession in the American government, then discuss with your team: should the president be able to select anyone to replace the vice president at any time? In the event of an impeachment, should the president be replaced by someone from the opposing party, rather than by his or her own party—or would this encourage too many attempts at impeachment?
- In British-inspired parliamentary systems, opposition parties frequently assemble “Shadow Cabinets”—ministers who mirror those in power. Explore this concept: how often do Shadow Cabinet members succeed those they are shadowing? Should presidential systems include a shadow president?
- In a presidential system, when control of the government shifts from one political party to the other, power must be transferred between them. Read about this process in the United States, then discuss with your team: should new leaders be required to keep some members of the previous administration around, to help ensure a smooth transition? Do you think all administrations would be equally inclined to help their successors?
- Governments of all kinds, from the Weimar Republic to Katolis, are vulnerable to coups, or takeovers from within, usually in the form of secret plots with military backing. Consider these examples of coups in France, Spain, Libya, Uganda, and Chile, and this failed coup in the United States. Discuss with your team: what would it take to justify a coup? Can coups take place in private companies? Would you ever support a coup in your own school, if you felt teachers or other students were being mistreated?
The Company You Don’t Keep: Corporate Succession
- The surge in global industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the emergence of giant companies all over the world—and, often, tremendous family fortunes. Take a look at companies such as Standard Oil, Ford, U.S. Steel, and De Beers, and contrast them with more recent companies such as Microsoft and Intel. Who succeeded their original leaders—and how effectively did the new leaders steer these companies into the future?
- Analysts have found that different cultures treat business succession differently; for instance, a number of American researchers have criticized East Asian business owners for assuming their companies should be passed on to their children and other relatives. Discuss with your team: is there really something wrong with the default idea of “my children should take my place”?
- Sometimes, a company is doing badly, and its directors force the leader out of power in an effort to recover. Sometimes, the leader does something bad, and keeping them around becomes a liability even if the company is thriving. The same can be true at organizations of all kinds, from local nonprofits to national governments. Consider the following examples from the private sector. What led to the departure of each company’s leader, and how was a successor selected?
- Boeing | Alibaba | Uber | WeWork | Instagram
- Researchers at Stanford have identified “seven myths” of corporate succession. Discuss with your team: are they really just myths, or is there some truth to them? The researchers also find that CEOs tend to behave in six different ways during moments of transition:
- Active Advisor | Aggressor | Passive Aggressor
- Capitulator | Hopeful Savior | Power Blocker
- Discuss with your team: which of these terms, if any, apply to other examples of succession in this outline and in your own experience? How would you handle the case of a leader who wants to hold onto power even when others believe it is time for them to go? Is it possible they are right to resist?
- Sometimes, corporate succession descends into unexpected chaos, with more than one person claiming to be in charge—as happened just last year at Hong Kong Airlines. Discuss with your team: in such situations, might the best solution be to appoint co-leaders?
The One After the Chosen One: Succession in Works of Fiction
- *Spoiler Alert* At the end of Avengers: Endgame, a weary but content Captain America hands his iconic shield to Sam Wilson, signaling that he has chosen Sam to succeed him. Discuss with your team: is the transfer of such a symbol enough to indicate a shift of power and title, or should the characters be taking a different, perhaps more public approach? Are there examples in real-world history where one person transferred their position to their chosen successor in this way?
- In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when one Slayer dies, another is called to take her place. Research how the process of slayer succession works—including the roles of “Watchers” and “Potentials”—and then discuss with your team: is it good for such an important choice to be out of human hands? Are there positions in real life for which it would make sense to have Watchers and Potentials?
- Working with your team, consider the following examples of succession in fiction. How often does the person doing the succeeding get to choose whether to take on their new role—and how often do they receive guidance from the person they are replacing?
- King Arthur | the Choosing | the Flame & Commander
- All Might & Midoriya | Rand Al’Thor | Supreme Sorcerer
- Not every fictional leader or hero has a successor. Consider Robin Hood, or Dumbledore. Discuss with your team: are there some shoes that are best left unfilled?
- After Jon Stewart stepped down as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, the network announced his successor would be the relatively unknown South African comedian Trevor Noah. Although there was controversy around Noah’s selection, he benefitted from Stewart’s support and from institutional continuity: the show kept around many of the same writers and producers. Watch clips of Noah’s debut performance, then discuss with your team: are there lessons here for those choosing successors to other popular television hosts? Why do you think The Daily Show continued with a new host while its popular companion series The Colbert Report came to an end once its original host (Stephen Colbert) left?
- Explore these other examples of host transitions—and non-transitions—over the years, then discuss with your team: what made some transitions easier or harder than others?
- Walter Cronkite | Jay Leno | Oprah Winfrey | Ralph Lawler | Mary Berry
- Tragically, the world’s most famous quiz show, Jeopardy!, will soon need a new host—as current host Alex Trebek has said that his struggle with pancreatic cancer will force him to retire. Discuss with your team: should he be involved in selecting his replacement—and should he be replaced, as many have suggested, with someone better able to embody youth and diversity?
i successori: Succession in the Criminal Underworld
- The leaders of criminal organizations and syndicates are often the most powerful people in their communities—and the most in danger of being usurped. Read about the Gambino crime family in New York, then consider: how do civil wars within such Mafia organizations and their equivalents impact the general public?
- Consider this article, which describes a formalized succession ritual amongst the Japanese yakuza. “Without [these ceremonies],” one boss says, “We wouldn’t be yakuza.” How do such ceremonies affect the culture of a group? Discuss with your team: does your nation have similar traditions—such as inauguration in the United States—to demonstrate the transfer of power? How about your school?
- In 1931, a number of leading crime families in America transitioned from a Godfather-type form of leadership in which one person was in control indefinitely to a more democratic council called “The Commission”, complete with term limits and consensus requirements. As you investigate how this Commission formed, evaluate if it achieved its purpose. Should companies or other organizations adopt similar practices?
Succession and Failure
- The Mongol Empire is often remembered as synonymous with Genghis Khan, but it outlived him—at least for a while. Before his death, Genghis designated his third son Ögedei as his heir. His plan worked: after some minor court intrigue, Ögedei took control. The next handoff was not as clean, however. When Ögedei died some years later, his sons fought to succeed him, and the Empire never recovered. Research the circumstances around the passage of power from each of these generations to the next. Who ultimately took power? Discuss with your team: is there anything Ögedei could have done differently to limit the repercussions of his passing? Is a clear line of succession easier or harder to achieve in a conquest-based society?
- The Mongol Empire’s crisis was largely internal, but unclear lines of succession can draw entire regions into conflict. When the king of Spain died in 1700 without an heir, royal families elsewhere in Europe claimed the throne—sparking a war for influence across the continent and beyond. Explore the outcome of this conflict and the other examples below, then discuss with your team: could something like them happen in today’s world?
- War of the Spanish Succession | Wars of the Roses | The Three Kingdoms
- Just two months after taking office, American president Ronald Reagan had been shot. No one knew for sure if he would survive or what might happen next. Amid the chaos, Secretary of State Alex Haig offered reporters words of reassurance: “As of now, I’m in control here at the White House.” The statement haunted him for the rest of his career. Look into it why caused so much controversy, then discuss with your team: was it justified? Is it ever fair for an unelected official to succeed an elected one?
- The Walt Disney Company has had a history of difficult successions. Most recently, in 2016, the company announced the abrupt departure of COO Thomas Stagg, who had been set to take over as CEO in 2018. No one knows for certain why he left; one plausible theory is that the person then serving as CEO—Robert Iger—was reluctant to step aside on schedule. Research the situation, then discuss with your team: at least at first, was Disney’s process a model for others to follow, or was it flawed from the start?
- Black smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel one day in early October 1978. It was a sign that a Conclave had concluded: a new pope had been elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church. This new pope, Polish clergyman Karol Józef Wojtyła, also took on a new name: John Paul II. Are there other leadership traditions in which it is common for a leader to adopt a new name? Discuss with your team: is it something more leaders should do? Be sure to learn more about how the conclaves function—and sometimes malfunction. What was unique about the most recent papal succession, in 2013?
- Sometimes, the new guy (or non-guy) is the old guy (or non-guy). Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was pushed out in 1985, only to be brought back in 1997—whereupon he cemented his legacy by leading a struggling Apple back to the prominence it still enjoys today. Learn more about his departure and return, then discuss with your team: was it a mistake to let him go in the first place?
- Consider the following individuals who were also replaced, only to return later to their positions. Discuss with your team: are there common threads in their stories? Did they find more success the second time around?
- Starbucks - Howard Schultz | Hooli - Gavin Belson | Google - Larry Page | Yahoo - Jerry Yang
- Bulgaria - Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha | Chile - Michelle Bachelet & Sebastián Piñera
- “Community” - Dan Harmon | “Guardians of the Galaxy” - James Gunn
- Lakers – Phil Jackson | Real Madrid - Zinedine Zidane
- Entire political systems have sometimes been brought back into power—for instance, the English monarchy in 1660, the New Republic post-Endor, and the Bourbon monarchy in France. Discuss with your team: what motivates people to welcome back such institutions—is it familiarity? Do the restorations tend to succeed? Be sure to keep an eye on the headlines for similar re-successions unfolding in our world today.
- Sometimes, one country interferes with the process of succession in another. In 2016, Russia attempted to influence the results of the American presidential election; in 1953, the United States and the United Kingdom backed an effort to replace the leader of Iran; the Soviet Union installed its own preferred government in Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Prague Spring. Discuss with your team: is it ever appropriate for a country to get involved in another country’s choice of leader?
- Who should be responsible for succession planning? Should it generally be the role of a leader to search for a future replacement—and does this answer vary across different types of organizations, from governments to sports franchises?
- Is it a good idea for someone to “groom” an appointed replacement? Consider the steps outlined here. Discuss with your team: would you follow them, and do they apply outside the workplace? Along the same lines, Apple CEO Tim Cook has said, “I see my role as CEO to prepare as many people as I can to be CEO.” Is this good advice for all leaders, or are there times when the best decision is to have fewer potential successors around?
- In many ancient regimes, years were numbered based upon dynasties; thus, the emergence of a new dynasty would very literally mean the start of a new historical era. How much would such a succession-based calendar influence people’s understanding of time and authority?
- Can more abstract concepts or even products experience succession? For instance, can one city succeed another (i.e., as a hub for immigration)? How about space exploration programs (i.e., Apollo vs. Mercury), languages, World Scholar’s Cup themes, or iPhone models? Discuss with your team: when is the term “succeed” more appropriate than “replace” or “follow”?
- The Commonwealth recently announced that Prince Charles would succeed his mother as its leader. Discuss with your team: what is the significance of this succession, and are there any problems with the process that led to his selection?
- Has the rise of social media made it easier or harder for new leaders to assume power? How about the existence of the Internet more broadly? Discuss with your team: are your answers to these questions the same across politics, business, and other types of organizations?
- Consider this advice for those succeeding charismatic, popular leaders. Discuss with your team: do you find it compelling? And, is it really a bad idea for a new leader to try to emulate the old one’s methods and personality—or does focusing on creating a unique new identity pose its own risks? Would any of this advice apply outside the world of business?
- Are there times when someone would want to keep a succession a secret?
- In the United States, whenever the entire Congress gathers for a presidential speech, one Cabinet member is always designated to remain a safe distance away, so that he or she can succeed to the presidency if everyone at the speech is killed. Discuss with your team: should the public have some input into the choice of “designated survivor”? What is the line of emergency succession in your own country? And, should the World Scholar’s Cup have a designated survivor when the entire staff gathers for a Global Round?
- Within hours of the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, his former lieutenant Esmail Ghaani had been named his successor. Discuss with your team: how important is it that prominent lost leaders be replaced as soon as possible?
- Is there a teacher in charge of the World Scholar’s Cup at your school? If so, imagine that he or she suddenly left. Discuss with your team: who would you want to have succeed them? Should there be a formal process for identifying this successor, and, if so, who should be involved in the decision?
Last Updated: January 7