Recently I had lunch with a friend. This wasn’t just a friend, but also a past bishopric counselor of mine. At the time of our lunch, I had recently been released as bishop and he had recently been called as bishop in a different ward. These scenarios led to a discussion about leadership vacuums.
What is a leadership vacuum? Metaphorically speaking, it’s the space left behind by a previous leader. The responsibilities the leader performed, and the information only he or she had access to. In a Church calling, when an authoritative person is released, that vacuum of space collapses on itself and causes issues. This might be made manifest in the form of how the previous leader managed the week-to-week schedule, or how he or she emphasized specific programs in the Church. Even the change in personality from one leader to another can cause uncomfortable adjustments for a ward or quorum. Maybe the last guy was really likable, but the new guy is an old grump.
There is no way around this leadership vacuum collapse. The only thing that can be done is to make sure the leadership vacuum is so small that the collapse has minor effect. The outgoing leader holds the most power in keeping the leadership vacuum small enough to have no long term effect on the new leader.
Transitions of leadership happen all the time in both in the secular world, and especially in the LDS religious world. Consider the change in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles. When apostles die is there a collapse? No. Thankfully the quorum is supported by 11 other men holding the same authority. The authority of those surviving provides support from the collapse. What about when the president of the Church dies, is there a collapse? Definitely to some extent, but again, the structure of those callings creates an expected result that minimizes the adjustment that members of the Church have to make with the new prophet.
What about when Jesus Christ ascended into heaven? Did the leadership vacuum collapse? There was an apostasy in the coming years, but at the time, thankfully there was no collapse, and the Apostles carried on the work. At the time of Christ’s arrest, and when Peter denied knowing the Savior (John 18), the leadership vacuum appears large and a leadership collapse seemed inevitable. Thankfully, after the Saviors resurrection, He spoke with Peter directly, reminding him of his role as the “Rock,” or leader of the Church. This story, made even more memorable by Elder Hollands 2012 October #ldsconf Address, shrunk whatever remained of the leadership vacuum left by the Savior. Peter proved this as he later preached and produced miracles measurable to the Savior’s.
Now consider a typical transition for a Relief Society president or elders quorum president. How often are auxiliary leaders re-learning what the previous leader already learned? Of course, some knowledge and experience can only be gained through a personal experience, but most leadership vacuums left behind could be much minor with a thoughtful approach to one’s responsibilities and effective delegation.
As my bishop friend and I discussed the idea of a leadership vacuum and how to minimize it, a few ideas came to mind. I’d like to share them with you to get you thinking as well. Better ideas may come from you, the reader, as you share your thoughts below. I’d love to add your ideas to this list so other leaders can minimize their leadership vacuum.
1. Delegate More Often
Many Relief Society presidents, bishops, and auxiliary presidents think that because they are the big cheese, the main man, or the key holder, they have to do everything. There are very few things the leader can only do themselves. The more they delegate the more they shrink the leadership vacuum. More often than not, their future replacement comes from their own presidency or someone closely working with them. When they delegate responsibilities the future leader get a head-start to understand how to lead the quorum. Always be training your replacement.
2. Explain Your Role More Often
When I served as bishop, I remember fondly great discussion come out of bishopric meetings when my counselors would ask me specific questions about how I perform my calling. They might ask, “What’s the process after someone confesses a pornography addiction?” or, “How do you know if you are making the right decision when helping someone with Church welfare?” These questions allowed me, as the bishop and the only person who could make a final decision on these matters, to explain my role and the thought process I went through. My first counselor in those meetings later replaced me as bishop. Those discussions serve him well as he has my perspective to fall back on when making the same difficult decisions.
Most leadership or presidency meetings start with a spiritual thought, but don’t hesitate to take time for a leadership thought and discuss process, policy, and tactics that make you the leader you are. Each one of these discussions shrink the leadership vacuum.
3. Create Reference Records
Record keeping is a tough one, but is priceless for a new leader when questions arise. Of course, the new leader can always call the previous leader and ask questions, but his or her memory might not be as sharp as they would like. I would always kick myself when we started planning for a yearly activity. I couldn’t remember the details of the previous year. How many people came? How much food was bought? After a few years as bishop I began making quick notes about these small, but important details.
Three years into my time as bishop I created a spreadsheet with all the names of the members of my ward. As issues came up or visits were made to less-active individuals I would make a simple note on the spreadsheet. As members would move to other wards and their new bishop would call me for information, it made it a slick process to go to my master spreadsheet look up the name and read to the new leader my note. I even talked with the current bishop of my ward a few weeks ago and he mentioned how nice it is to have some reference notes of people he isn’t familiar with.
There are many scenarios where simple written records can minimize the leadership vacuum. Taking a few minutes every week to add to these records will be a blessing for future leaders.
4. Allow Outgoing Leaders to Know Incoming Leaders
When I was called as bishop, I had the luxury of spending some time with the bishop I was to replace to discuss situations and individuals in the ward. These meetings happened in the days leading up to my sustaining. They usually happened late at night in his office after his scheduled appointments. This helped me prepare to take the reins when my sustaining happened. I took the same time with my replacement to download all needed information.
I am often surprised by some bishops or stake presidencies that don’t allow the outgoing leader to know who their replacement is until the time of their sustaining. This causes the new leader to play catch-up after the setting apart until he or she can meet with the past leader. When I was released, the new bishop was set apart and I walked out of the building with a big smile on my face knowing the new bishop had the information he needed to move forward in his calling with confidence. Taking the time before the sustaining and setting apart to transfer information really minimized the leadership vacuum.
There is one item of consideration related to transferring information about individuals. As a bishop, there are worthiness issues that need to be transferred to the new bishop so specific repentance processes can continue forward. Knowing the background on individuals isn’t always necessary. I recently heard of a new Young Women’s president that was called and the outgoing leader wanted to sit down with her and discuss all the concerns she had with some girls. The new Young Women’s president declined so she would have a fresh perspective and no bias towards any girl. A great act of leadership!
5. Some Leadership Vacuum is Healthy
All leadership vacuums are not bad, in fact, a change of guard is many times a blessing for the ward or quorum. It brings new ideas to old problems, and it brings a fresh face to the organization. It is important for the outgoing leader to give permission to the incoming leader to make changes as they see fit. Hopefully, the new leader sees the value and purpose for programs and tactics the old leader put into play. However, if they do not, they should feel confident in doing something different. As you strive to minimize the leadership vacuum, be sure to leave room for healthy change.
As many of you have experienced transitions in leadership, what advice would you add to this list?