Accidental Succession

Working without a succession plan invites disruption, uncertainty, conflict, and halts any semblance of productivity.
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HBO’s Succession is an excellent show.

Sorry for the editorial. One of the regrets I’ve had during this quarantine era is that I did not save this show to watch during this time. The family dynamics at play, especially the politics of who will succeed Logan Roy (played brilliantly by veteran actor Brian Cox), creates a lot of the show’s great suspenseful moments that are sprinkled with comedy, too.

Logan Roy has four children, and all of them (plus a few others) are vying to be the next king/queen of Waystar Royco, the media company he owns. All of them have particular strengths and weaknesses should they take the job, and Logan plays them off each other either as a way to test them or because he brings joy in seeing his kids suffer (his motivation is a toss-up for me). Regardless, Logan Roy, at the very least, seems to have a plan. Even if the viewer, nor the Roy children, have an idea what that plan is and who Logan is planning to succeed him, this patriarch has a plan.

John Tyler

When John Tyler was selected to be William Henry Harrison’s running mate in the 1840 presidential election, it was highly immaterial. Up to that point, no president had failed to complete his entire term in office. Under the Constitution, the vice presidency was “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived,” according to the letter written by John Adams, the first vice president, to his wife, Abigail.

Like many vice-presidential choices, Tyler’s selection was to ensure the “balancing of a ticket,” which in American politics is when a candidate chooses a running mate to help the campaign gain more widespread appeal. John Tyler appealed to a cross-section of Whigs, including those who were not enthusiastic about Harrison. His credentials as a former Democrat and a Southerner would help woo some Southern Democrats away from the incumbent — Martin Van Buren of New York.

The Whigs in 1841 had a plan to win the election, but there was no real thinking in what comes just in case their presidential candidate did not serve out his full term.

A Powerhouse VP

The “Tippecanoe & Tyler, Too” campaign bested their opponents by about an 80%–20% margin in the Electoral College. After his inauguration, Tyler expected few responsibilities, so he headed home to Williamsburg, Virginia. That same month, Harrison struggled with his health in Washington. The president’s death soon after was an unprecedented event that caused considerable uncertainty regarding succession.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution states: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President.”

While in our modern viewpoint, it’s quite clear that the Vice President would step into the Oval Office. That was not always so obvious. Did this section mean that the Vice President would assume the powers and duties while maintaining the #2 title? Members of Harrison’s cabinet, which Tyler was to inherit, determined that he would be “vice president acting president.” Tyler asserted that he was now the president and had himself sworn in immediately.

In general, John Tyler is ranked as relatively unsuccessful by historians. Some of them suggest that Tyler’s lack of success was because of factors that would have plagued anybody who ended up in the White House. And it all stemmed from an explicit agreement over succession. Though it didn’t bode well for his legacy, Tyler’s actions set the stage for smoother transitions in the future.

Succession Plans

According to the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), fewer than one in four corporate boards say a formal succession plan is in place at their company. Like our government, businesses that do not have a clear plan of succession — or transition — in leadership are dooming its eventual successor. If Tyler’s experience proved anything, an unclear plan would lead to maneuvering by those who do not support the new boss, or who want that position for themselves. Most organizations function under a strategic plan, but unless that plan comes with a succession plan, the future is muddy at best. 

Working without a succession plan invites disruption, uncertainty, conflict, and halts any semblance of productivity.

Whether it’s a family-run business, a large corporation, a non-profit, or a government department, the long view should precede. If one is too short-sighted to prepare for an unexpected succession crisis in leadership, the pains the United States government went through in 1841 will be a recurring theme.

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