Succession Planning – lessons from history
Academics will tell you that the main reason we study history is to “learn from the past” – the topic of succession planning provides many great examples of the traps and pitfalls of poorly planned or implemented succession plans. Shakespeare’s King Lear is almost entirely based on the traps and issues of trying to ensure succession – in this case of the kingdom of England , not really a family business, to Lear’s three daughters – the issues though are very similar to those faced by SME business owners today.
Early on Lear announces his desire to retire – ” ’tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age; conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburdened crawl toward death” – we hear this kind of sentiment ( without the Shakespearean language ) from our clients on a regular basis. The King then calls his children to a meeting to outline his plans ” We have this will to publish Our daughters several dowers ” primarily “that future strife may be prevented now.”
But the plan is poorly implemented – he focuses on his daughters protestations of love and ability to flatter him with flowery language and ignores the merit of each or their leadership ability.The two oldest daughters receive 1/3 of his kingdom each, however Cordelia, the youngest who does not pander to the king but outlines her ability to manage the kingdom is disinherited, and thus Goneril and Regan ( and their dukes ) each receive half the kingdom.
As the play continues , the Kings method of choosing his successors is shown to be badly planned and flawed in its execution- he was unable to evaluate the potential successors objectively and ignored the wise council of his advisers ( family business advisers should pay close attention to Kent’s role in the play – he attempts to persuade the king that he is making a serious mistake by disinheriting Cordelia – but is banished upon threat of death ) .
The King also made a significant error in not adequately planning for his retirement funding – after giving away his kingdom he was forced to rely upon his two daughters for food and shelter ( unfortunately his entourage includes 100 rowdy knights of the realm who his daughters refuse to support – the King becomes outraged at this betrayal – “No you unnatural hags, I will have revenges on you both … they shall be the terrors of the earth.” The strain of this family betrayal is so great that the King ultimately goes mad.
The succession plan goes awry in other respects – the King of France ( who is now married to Cordelia ) attempts to takeover England, In addition a rivalry between the two sisters arises as a result of them both wanting to marry the same man – Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself with a knife, Edmond orders Cordelia killed and the King, unable to bear this final loss dies.
Suffice to say an abject failure in succession planning and a great lesson.
In another historical example, in 323, one of history’s greatest generals , Alexander the Great, died in Babylon, leaving behind his gigantic empire and a succession crisis. Alexanders died at age 33 overwhelmed by a fever bought on by excessive drinking and at the time he had several wives but no heir ( one wife was pregnant but the child did not survive ).
The Macedonian monarchy had never had hard and fast rules of succession, with many kings before Alexander having had to endure succession issues from challengers within the royal house. a period of extended infighting amongst the key advisers, military leaders and other political factions saw the succession issue never really resolved on over ten years. Alexanders great empire, from the very moment of the death of its creator, was destined for fragmentation.
And they say ” History never repeats. “