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Leadership Transition Planning

"From now on, choosing my successor is the most important decision I'll make. It occupies a considerable amount of thought almost every day."
-Jack Welch, CEO of GE
(Quote from 1991 speech -
9 years before his anticipated retirement).

"I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers."
-That rascally Ralph Nader

Most Secular Student Alliance affiliates are democratic-the membership elects the leadership. This article is not about building a Freethought dynasty. However, every year dozens of groups die because there is no one running for key leadership positions.

If you want your group to survive longer than your time at school, you need to take an active role in figuring out who will by filling the key positions once you're gone. Also realize that the best potential leaders do not always step forward on their own - especially if others are willing to take on the leadership roles. You can take an active role in getting the best people into key leadership positions without subverting the democratic process.

Leadership Transition Planning Process

Here are some steps you can take to make sure the best people are leading your group after you have graduated.

Identify Key Roles & list skills and talents required for them

Key roles are ones that are critical to the success of your group and that few people are willing and able to fill. Examples of key roles certainly include the President, Treasurer and Secretary. While these classical roles are likely going to be important to your group, don't just crib roles from your constitution. Look at the activities you put on and figure out what work needs to be done to make them happen. Once you have identified the roles, list the skills and talents that are required to do them well.

Remember that you are focusing on key roles. Your group may have leadership positions that are nice to have filled, but the group won't fail to function if they are not filled. Prioritize.

Survey Current Situation

Are people with the required skills and talents already excited about running for leadership positions for next year? Are there people in the group who might do a better job but simply have not identified themselves as good for the role? How about two years down the road?

If you've got it covered for two years down the road, you're likely okay. Otherwise, ask yourself who within the group could do the best job at these key roles. Do you need to find ways to draw in new people outside of the group that might become leaders?

Directly Approach Potential Leaders

Once you have the feeling that someone would be good in a leadership role, take them aside after a meeting and tell them. Be as specific as possible both about what the responsibilities of the job are and why you think he or she would be good at the role.


Once you have someone who is at least tentatively interested in a key role, have that person begin to work with the person that presently holds that role. Perhaps she or he can act as an assistant, or just watch the current role holder work. Your school may offer training for that role-do whatever you can to get the potential leader into that training.


Once the new person has taken on the role, don't abandon them. If it is at all possible for you to stay around and support them, do so. Ideally, get the person into the role a year before you graduate so you can simply be available as a resource when he or she needs you. Your final year may be quite busy… job hunting, finishing up a thesis, etc. may make you a less than ideal choice for filling a key role anyway.

If you cannot physically be around during their first year in the position, at least give the new leader your phone number and email address. Make a commitment to answering their requests for help promptly.


Make sure you impart the importance of leadership transition planning to the new crop of leaders. It's very common for a group to die after its second crop of leaders graduate. Make sure they get a copy of this handout.

General Leadership Transition Advice

If you follow the process above, you should be set. Here are some additional tips that will help make the process easier.

Cross Train

If only one person in your group knows how to do something that's really important to how your group operates, you're in trouble. If she or he gets sick or leave the group, you will be in a difficult situation. Do your best to have people teach the skills involved in their job to at least one other person in the group.

Preserve the Core

The character of most organizations is set largely by the people that lead it. As people change, the organization is going to change-this is largely a healthy thing. However, odds are there are some core aspects of the group that you do not want to ever change. The most obvious aspect is your group's commitment to naturalism. There may be other elements as well that you believe are core to its identity. Make sure you write down these core values, talk about them with the new leaders and practice them in your own leadership. You need to use both the written word and organizational traditions to preserve what is most important about your group.

Try to pick just three to six things and focus on those. The fewer core values you pick, the more likely they will be to survive.

Document Best Practices

The more you write down about the job you do, the better. If you get sick or leave the group, at least the new leaders have what you wrote down. The SSA can help you set up some very easy to use web based tools that will help you store your documentation on the Internet where people from your group can always have access to it. Contact us today: [email protected] or 1.877.842.9474.

Be Flexible

If there is no one in your group that can fill the key roles the way you have been doing them in the past, it may be time to see if the roles can be changed. Perhaps skill and talent sets can be move from one job to another and the new jobs given new titles.

Optimize the Key Roles

You may be able to improve how your key roles are organized. Some SSA affiliates are abandoning traditional officer roles in favor of roles more focused around the tasks that need to get done for the group to run. Positions like Events Chair, Internet Chair, Advertising Chair, Membership Chair, etc. are working very well for some groups. These roles can spread responsibility across more people while also making it clearer where the buck stops.

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