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April 2016: “No lion in the bushes”: Fear and Succession Planning

April 1, 2016

I have been doing some deeper exploration of the hidden ways in which fear affects functioning.

 

This is an important topic for leaders because fear-based decisions are not always obvious yet frequently produce negative personal and organizational outcomes.

 

The challenge of succession planning illustrates the subtle and powerful ways in which fear influences important decisions.

 

Family business succession

 

Consider succession planning in family businesses.

 

In a family business setting, succession offers an intense mix of emotional factors that can easily freeze the thinking capacity of its members. Questions pop up everywhere: Are my kids qualified to lead the business? If I favor one of my children for leadership, how will the others feel? What if there’s tension or philosophical differences between the generations or between the successor siblings?

 

When such uncomfortable questions arise, the path of least resistance is avoidance.

 

I often get calls from attorneys who complain that their family business clients won’t plan for leadership succession.

 

“Even when we agree on a process for a path forward, the important conversations with the next generation just don’t happen,” the lawyers say. “If they do, it typically doesn’t go well.”

 

Accounting firm succession

 

The same intransigence occurs in accounting firms. Even though it’s in the financial interest of soon-to-be-retiring partners to plan for succession, they tend to move slowly and uncomfortably – or not at all – in developing younger partners.

 

For example, opportunities routinely get overlooked to introduce and transition younger partners to long-time clients. Instead of encouraging emerging leaders to make their mark, established leaders often leave them out.

 

The commonly-cited excuses are time problems (“I’ve been so busy…”) and perceived skill limitations (“I’m not quite sure how to go about this.”). Those might be legitimate impediments to succession planning, but the big one rarely gets mentioned: “mortality jitters.”

 

Deeper fears

 

The succession procrastination of family business founders and firm partners likely reveals an unconscious fear of losing their standing as key influencers. Deeper fears lurk under the surface:

 

Fear of losing status.

 

Fear of losing satisfaction and meaning.

 

Fear of moving on, into an “unknown” lifestyle.

 

Fear of death.

 

It would be good if these fears could be named, accepted and managed. An unfortunate irony is that we are afraid of fear itself. We don’t want to feel it, we don’t want to think about it, and we don’t want to address it.

 

Our reactive fear of fear makes it difficult to find our way out of this emotional maze.

 

One starting point might be to deepen our understanding of fear.

 

Understanding fear

 

The fear-driving mechanisms of humans have a purpose: to protect us from real threats. If we couldn’t feel fear, we would routinely take stupid risks. Healthy fear stops us from speeding past a railroad crossing or jumping off a cliff. Less dramatically, fear helps us keep doctor appointments and motivates us to research an investment before we commit.

 

That makes fear a vital asset.

 

But there’s a problem.

 

When humans fail to regulate their fear, it gets out of control. Unregulated anxiety, worry and fear disables our ability to distinguish real threat from fake threat. Now, we over-estimate a threat, or imagine threat where it doesn’t exist.

 

For example, we see a terrorist beheading on the internet and unthinkingly become more protective of our kids. In response, their anxiety ratchets up. They grow more wary than trusting, and become more concerned with safety than adventure. We want our kids to possess confidence and courage, yet our fear-driven parenting can have the opposite effect.

 

A fearful response to imagined threat generally produces low-maturity outcomes.

 

“No lion in the bushes”

 

Few of us can think straight when we get scared. Instead, we react instinctively, as if a lion was lunging at us from the bushes.

 

In the case of succession planning, “there’s no lion in the bushes.” Although we can slip into imagining succession as a threat, it’s actually developmentally appropriate. A time arrives when a founder or partner moves on because it makes sense to do so. Though it comes with understandable trepidation, letting go and moving on is not “unfortunate” or “a problem.” It’s healthy and necessary.

 

What gets us in trouble is the fear-driven resistance to the false threat of succession.

 

Is there a way to discover that there is no lion in the bushes?

 

Self-observing and reflecting

 

The trick is to cultivate the discipline of self-observing and reflecting.

 

The challenge to grow a succession mindset depends on our ability to observe ourselves in a reactive mode: “I’m feeling worried and fearful right now, and I need to check out the accuracy of my threat-perception. What’s really going on here?”

 

Sober thinking informs us that succession is more a mindset than a strategy. Reflection enables us to recognize a fact of human history: Preparing the next generation to function at a high level has always defined parenting and leadership. It’s simply what we do.

 

Taking time to recognize what we are feeling and experiencing, and to assess the reality of our perceived threats, helps us become better observers of ourselves. Reflection becomes our path to reducing fear.

 

Smart leaders tune in to what’s really going on so they can act more out of intention and less out of fear.

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