During my first months as president of Luther Seminary, an experienced leader at another school advised me, "Start now preparing for your successor!" I was still a new president, innocent of the challenges ahead, simply hoping to survive, but the counsel was wise. The presidency is an institutional trust, an office in the classic sense of a "role" or "authority" that an officer exercises for a limited time. The goal of every presidency is to leave the school more able to accomplish its mission.
After 18 years in office, plus an interim presidency, I have learned that preparing for a successor and getting out alive are compatible goals. Without presuming a single right way, here are three lessons for boards and presidents to consider together.
The presidency is a shared stewardship in a dynamic context.
A clean division between governance and administration is established wisdom, particularly in stable institutions, where wise boards "keep their noses in but fingers out." And keeping governance and administration separate also confirms the counsel that "the board does its most important work when it hires or fires the president."
But today, many seminaries are operating in dynamic contexts in which enrollment, revenue streams, and even the school's educational mission are changing. Unless the board wants to hire and fire frequently, the president's authorization to lead the seminary in changing circumstances requires sustained board engagement. I came to the presidency from a strong faculty, so this was a lesson I had to learn as a new chief executive. I didn't particularly value a strong board until it became clear that our institution needed to change if we were going to give our students new kinds of preparation for a new time in the church.
The shared stewardship of the presidency can take as many forms as the president and board contrive, but they need to collaborate and not wait for a catastrophe. The board chair or executive committee can indicate their readiness to offer counsel, support, and critique. In turn, the president needs to let them know what help is truly needed and welcome. Needed help means the engagement with the board that is required by the school's mission; welcome assistance indicates what the president is able to request and receive.
As a new president, I did not want to be needy, but after attending a workshop with my board chair, we decided to talk on the phone every Monday. In time, both of us found the right boundaries and learned to respect them. Next we invited the executive committee, and soon the full board, into our deliberation.
The mission specifies the leadership needed for this time
When leadership is authorized, it is also accountable, and that means honest reports with real numbers. The president's annual goals and the school's strategic plan must include timetables and measurements to track how faithfully, effectively, and efficiently the seminary is fulfilling its educational mission.
When our seminary was preparing for its first capital campaign, the funding consultant dropped in unexpectedly. "You've brought this school to this moment. Good work!" he said. "Are you ready to take on the leadership that these publicly stated goals will require?" After explaining how much time and energy the campaign was about to demand, the consultant concluded, "I've given this speech to several presidents, and you now have a choice. Either buy the clothes you will need and clear your calendar, or turn in your letter."
It's not that the school's financial burden falls on the president alone. Nevertheless, one of the best reasons for a 360° review of a presidency about every five years is to identify and cultivate the strengths needed to lead the school into its future.
Such a review need not measure the president against an impossible standard. Every extension of a president's term must be weighed by the board and the president against the scale of what leadership the school needs for the time ahead. The decision to continue or not is a mutual exercise in succession planning. Sometimes the actual succession may still be far off, as many seminaries are well served by long-term presidencies. But whether the leader's term is long or short, the president's fit and fire for emerging challenges should be regularly reviewed, renewed, and refreshed with learning opportunities.
"Getting out alive" means preparing the way
Managing the message is the shared responsibility of the president and the board. When board members speculate about whether the president plans to leave, or when the president publicly "floats" the idea of retiring — those almost guarantee difficulty.
Nevertheless, disciplined deliberation does need to take place. Discussions about succession planning for board members or administrators (including the president) must be attentive to the school's mission, careful about policies and human realities, and thoroughly confidential.
And "blessed be lead time because it is the time you are given to lead." Schools are well served if the president and the board can define a succession plan and schedule before the public announcement, because the presidency is a changed office from that moment.
When the succession comes, "getting out alive" is exactly what the president must do. Presidents who believe the school will die without them, or who fear losing their role as if it were their life, need to come to grips with themselves. Hanging around the school is seldom wise, especially after a long presidency.
The president's departure is a practical and spiritual moment for leadership by both the president and the board — a critical opportunity for the school's leaders to trust the Spirit to guide their discernment. Thus it is also an exercise of hope, aspiring to renew the school's educational work in the service of God's mission in the world. And the school's gracious farewell when the current president departs is an enactment of love as the board and outgoing president prepare the way for new leadership.
"Getting out alive" is a confession of faith. God isn't yet done with our school.