Historians consider Marcus Aurelius Antoninus “the last of the great emperors of Rome.” I’m not a historian by any stretch of the imagination, so I can’t claim to have the credentials to refute the claim, but I have often questioned this designation of admiration. I credit Marcus Aurelius for many admirable and distinguishable qualities. His self-discipline, adherence to principle, and the wise and fair rule of all Rome during his time as emperor from 161 to 180 C.E. are incomparable. His personal diary “Meditations” is a book I read and reference quite often.
What I find fault with, however, is one of his final but most critical and impactful acts as emperor: the succession of leadership. Rather than seek out his successor among the finest, bravest and wisest of Rome’s youth, as his predecessor and many before him had done, he chose instead to make his own son, Commodus, the leader of Rome upon Marcus’s death. Commodus, as history tells us, was a poor and ill-fated replacement. Commodus’s immaturity, pettiness, lust for power and weakness for indulgences and comfort would lead Rome down a path of self-destruction just as its vulnerabilities and weaknesses were becoming evident to the rest of the world.
Until Marcus Aurelius’s time, Roman emperors often sought out their successor from among those that resembled the best of what Rome had to offer in body, mind and spirit. It was a singular, but effective, method of continual successful leadership. But, left to the choosing of a single individual, the emperor himself, one ill choice was all it took to begin a rapid decline that would culminate in the end of the Roman Empire.
How we choose our successors is no simple feat. In most cases, the decision is not even up to the one to be succeeded. Such decisions made today are nearly always left to boards, investors or public elections. Nonetheless, the role leaders play in preparing others for consideration and capacities of leadership is no less vital. Given the influence, even the smallest organizations can play in today’s global economy through technology and communication, the task is seemingly as impactful as the fateful choice made so long ago.
One need only look at recent history to recognize it. Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Bossidy (Honeywell), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), and A.G. Lafley (Proctor and Gamble), come immediately to mind as executives who exited their organizations only to return and redirect their wayward organization back to good standing with the market and its many investors.
What is clear from all the stories, past and present, regarding hasty exits and all-too-quick returns, is the haste and emotion that played key roles in missing vital clues to a successor’s weaknesses, mismatches or faults. All too often, successors are chosen in haste, with an affirming bias toward those who “have paid their dues” or otherwise rely on an influential body of people who can raise them up but, alas, cannot help them stay there.
Succession is not to be led by affection, emotion, fondness nor familial ties. It must be led by sound judgment, clear mindedness, a conviction to the greater good, keen insight and rational judgment. It is not for the weakhearted.
The work of succession planning is best done the moment a new CEO is chosen. The work is also never the work of the CEO alone, but the work of countless stakeholders from diverse roles in and out of the organization. It can take years of continuous development, watchful evaluation and compassionate guidance both on or off the ever-present short list of succession. A neutral party offering observational insight, guidance and experience is key.
Begin immediately to develop not only the career path that would carry you to the executive role you seek, but the path for those who will come after you, to continue the legacy of your own success, and the success of the organization for whom you have dedicated so much.