Founders, Culture, and Succession: Thursday Thoughts

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

There are two books that have greatly impacted both my views and practice of leadership. One is Barry Kouzes and Jim Posner’s classic work, The Leadership Challenge. If you are responsible for a team of people, which makes you a leader at whatever level, get The Leadership Challenge read it and put into practice because it is practical and inspirational. (Their idea of ‘celebrating small wins’ is one that I have used quite a bit because it builds momentum and confidence in people. )

The second book, and perhaps lesser known to many is one that I encountered in my graduate work in the early 1990’s in a course that I dropped and then used as a text in a directed readings course and which set me on a mental journey of paying attention to certain dynamics in organizations that includes churches as well as other non-profits. It is Edgar H Schien’s Organizational Culture and Leadership.

In Organizational Culture and Leadership, Dr Schien devotes an entire chapter to the issue and place of founders in organizations. The chapter is, in fact, entitled, How Organization Founders Shape Culture and in that chapter he compares the founders of three companies to one another and how their management styles affected their companies’ future. It was one of those chapters that has stuck with me over the years as I have observed and participated in leadership succession.

In one congregation I have served the founding pastor returned to serve out his career as pastor after a 10 year absence. It was a challenge to me because he had very definite ideas as to what was going to happen. I left after one year with him. From what I could understand later, his final tenure ended on mixed note. In another congregation, I worked with a pastor who had moved an established congregation to a new location and continued to pastor that congregation for another 15 years, including a church split. but resigned due to health issues after 20 years of service. I was only there 11 months when he stepped down. He too, had very definite ideas as to what was to be done.

What I also observed (and experienced) in the aftermath of their departures, was a tumultuous experience for those who followed them. Neither successor exceeded the length of service of their predecessors, both of whom I call founders.It seemed to me then, and now, that the shadow (and I use this word in a positive light), cast by the founders was long and deep.

Both of these men were strong personalities and led with them. And as Schien points out in his book with the case of a strong central leader, hesitation and uncertainty on the part of the successors make for a bumpy ride for an organization.

All of this was swirling around in my head yesterday and today as I listened to Bloomberg and Fox Business News discuss the resignation of Steve Jobs as Apple CEO. The issue of culture constantly came up in discussions about profitability, market share, and product development. No doubt Jobs will leave a long shadow over Apple, and the computer and technology industry, for many years to come.

So what I am thinking is that the legacy a leader leaves in an organization can either inhibit or advance the organization in the years to follow.

We shall see with Apple.

These are my Thursday Thoughts


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