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Living Up to Your Predecessor's Memory . . .
Who Many Think Could Walk on Water

Thomas W. McKee

In one of my very first volunteer management positions I followed a fantastic leader who everyone loved. He was 6'2" and looked like the young James Garner of his Maverick days and I, at 5' 4 and 13/16", felt more like Pee Wee Herman. To make it worse, my volunteers constantly said to me, "But Ed did it this way," and I wanted to shout, "I'm not Ed." The first time through I did it all wrong. I was very young and insecure. If Ed did it one way, I would do it the opposite. My first year was hell. In fact my second year wasn't much better. It took me several years to develop trust, and when I left seven years later I became my replacement's nightmare. But I learned my lesson and decided that the next time I would embrace the memory of someone everyone really loved.

Transitions are hardófor everyone; however, a couple of thoughts can help us to manage this difficult time.

First, we need to remember our calling. Leadership is often very lonely at the top. We need affirmation and encouragement and it is nice when our followers (leadership implies that others are following) thank us and affirm our leadership. But that does not always happen.

One of the most inspiring and insightful books on leadership that I have ever read is Doris Kern Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals. It chronicles the story of how Abraham Lincoln recruited a team of his rivals to lead the United States when we were anything but united and on the brink of a Civil War. His toughest rival was Salmon Chase, U.S. Senator and former Governor from Ohio. However, Lincoln choose him as the Secretary of the Treasury. While Chase was in Lincoln's cabinet, he fabricated false stories about Lincoln because Chase wanted to run against the President in the next election (he had lost the nomination to Lincoln in the last election). Although the rumors were very hurtful to Lincoln, many of the newspapers were calling for Lincoln to fire his whole cabinet, and his leadership ability was in question, Lincoln refused to let Chase go because he had a greater missionówinning the war. Chase had the ability to raise money for the Union army, and Lincoln needed him.

Like Lincoln, as leaders, our goal is to focus on our mission rather than trying to build trust and receive "thank-yous" from volunteers. The leader's goal is not to build loyalty, but to lead an organization and often to do that we need swallow our feelings and pride. Loyalty, trust and "thank-yous" are the buy-product of leadership, not the goal.

Second, don't try to change everything at once. Some people feel that they are disloyal to your predecessor's memory if they follow you with all of your new ideas. They need time to make the transition.

William Bridges in Managing Transitions, says that it's not the change that does us in, it's the transition. More specifically, Bridges says, "It's not the changes themselves that the people resist. It's the losses and ending that they experience and the transition that they are resisting. That's why it does little good to talk about how healthy the outcome of the change will be. Instead, you have to deal directly with the losses and endings" Managing Transitions, William Bridges, p. 20).

Some of the ways that Bridges suggests we can help everyone deal with the transition are the following:
  • Treat the past with respect
  • Don't be surprised at overreaction
  • Expect and accept the signs of grieving (Anger, bargaining, anxiety, sadness, disorientation and depression)
  • Show how endings ensure continuity of what really matters
But Bridges emphasizes that we should not drag out this process. In fact he says to plan it. He even suggests that you put together a transition team to plan and communicate the losses of the past, the anxiety of a neutral zone, and a new beginning. If you haven't read Bridges book, I highly recommend reading Bridges classic work. In fact, it would be a great book to give your board members.

Bottom line is that we are not the only ones going through a transition of new leadership. The transition period is difficult for both the new leader and the followers, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming.

Although the first time I followed a dynamic leader I was a huge failure, the second time around, I embraced my predecessor. In fact I would call him and talk with him about how he did things. I even invited him back to address our volunteers. He did. We established a great relationship and on occasion when someone said to me, "This is the way Gordon did it," I would call Gordon, and we would laugh. Then it hit me, we could laugh because he was also going through a transition. I learned to respect and love my predecessor who really seemed to be able to walk on water.

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.