Shakespeare’s Cautionary Tale on Succession Planning

| by Priscilla Bratcher

Last month, my colleague Shannon Williams’ blog, inspired by March Madness, compared the turnover of executive directors at nonprofits with the four-year cycle of college basketball players. She argued that succession planning is crucial for both kinds of endeavors and raised important questions about preparing for change.

Shannon is one of the smartest and most capable professionals I know. Over my first year at Armstrong McGuire, I have come to know and respect her quick mind and creativity. But as I thought about blogging this week, I realized that Shannon and I come from different worlds. Hers is filled with athletics; not only is she a great sports fan and supporter of many college and professional teams, but with two teenage sons, she spends a lot of time in gyms and at swimming pools.

I come from a different world, that of the arts. So in thinking about succession planning, I asked myself what was the very WORST example of leadership transition in literature and the arts and what could we learn from a dramatic disaster. The answer was simple:  Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Though a devilishly challenging character to play, the plot of the play is fairly straightforward. King Lear, who is elderly and wants to retire from power, decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. He calls them together and asks them one at a time how much they love him. The elder two sisters say that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. But for his youngest, Cordelia, there is nothing to compare her love to, nor words to properly express it; she speaks honestly but bluntly, which infuriates him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between the elder two. The rest of the play is about their abysmal treatment of their father once they have control, his humiliation, his banishment and, finally, madness. And, as it turned out, Cordelia was the only one who truly loved him. Yes, it’s a corker.

In a way, Lear was a founding or long-time executive director whose retirement was approaching. He had enormous power but letting go was tough. What did the poor old king do wrong? Join me in counting the ways!


First of all Lear’s succession plan was not known until all the interested parties were called together for the surprise announcement. There was no prior communication about his departure from power, causing an enormous upheaval. Although high drama is good for theatre (and sports!), it’s not ideal in well-run organizations.


The short timeline made it difficult to design a thoughtful process. Had we been there to help Lear, we would have recommended taking the time to follow a logical pattern of steps that lead to the best chance for positive outcomes, including:

  • Consulting stakeholders

Everyone involved in a nonprofit has a point of view and no one has the complete picture. Board members may want one kind of leader, staff another, and donors something else. Taking the time to thoughtfully consult each group, either through individual conversations, focus groups or surveys, will give the search committee a more accurate picture of what the organization needs.

  • Creating a strong recruitment plan and timeline

In Lear’s world, royal blood was the only requirement for succession. Luckily, we live in more enlightened times. But that means it takes more work to create a thorough recruitment plan. Beyond advertising and sorting through resumes, it is important to have a strong search committee with a good variety of voices and points of view. Lear had strong and sensible advisors, but he turned on them when they disagreed. Not only did he not listen to them but he expelled them from the kingdom (banishing seemed to be an effective medieval way to deal with opposition.) We know better. A variety of opinions will lead to more thorough deliberation and better outcomes every time.

  • Creating a thorough and reasonable position profile

King Lear gave his power to whichever daughter(s) said she loved him best, foolish man. When looking for a new executive director, many stakeholders may want a clone of the beloved departing leader. That’s natural and understandable. But this is the best time for an organization to re-think its direction, its practices, its strategic priorities, its strengths and opportunities. A thoughtful profile will attract the right kind of applicants.

  • Honoring the “letting go” process

King Lear based his disastrous succession plan on flattery and emotion in the moment. His impulsiveness led to tragedy. A recent search conducted by our firm brought the wrongheadedness of this into focus for me. A long time executive director was leaving a high-functioning nonprofit. His departure caused many emotional responses from board, staff and colleagues who, at first, had trouble imagining the organization without him. It took a while for people to get beyond the shock of his departure and a period of loss. I suspect that’s pretty common, particularly in founder-led nonprofits. People experience anxiety and momentary loss of direction. But taking the time to both honor and get past the emotion can lead to better decision-making. Sometimes, taking the appropriate time between the leader’s departure and the appointment of the new executive gives the organization time to make a clean break.

  • The King is dead; long live the King

In Lear days, it didn’t take long to commit to the new ruler; loyalty to the incumbent could mean the difference between life and death. For us, it’s more complicated. Long-time leaders sometimes have a hard time completely letting go and it’s perfectly understandable. After his retirement, Lear was kicked to the curb; however unlikely, that future may be in the minds of departing leaders. Negotiating the role of the outgoing executive director is often tricky. Boundaries need to be drawn and roles defined. I believe that a clean break holds the best chance for a successful transition, but I know that’s not always possible. A strong board chair can make a big difference in how this potentially troublesome new relationship will evolve. It will take attention and multiple conversations, most likely.

  • Committing to the new leader

Now for a happy ending. Well-led nonprofit organizations who adopt best practices in recruiting a new executive will most likely be rewarded with a talented, experienced and enthusiastic new leader quite unlike Shakespeare’s grasping, greedy and lying daughters. The new relationship will begin with a “honeymoon” period followed by an inevitable time of adjustment and realignment. It is crucial that the board and new executive begin their journey together with a frank and honest examination of expectations, on both sides. An agreement to be frank with and supportive of each other will help the organization along the sometimes bumpy road to a new future.

There are likely many more lessons Shakespeare’s King Lear can teach us about poor succession planning. Can you spot some? Poor old Lear. If only he’d had a good consultant.


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