Leadership isn’t Hereditary

The latest book I’ve been toting around with me is Antonia Fraser’s two-volume history of Charles II. You’ll remember him, mainly because Parliament beheaded his father, forcing him into exile. Prior to this he was being schooled by his father the King (Charles I) in the art of running the Country. 

Charles II ended up making a pretty good King once he was restored to the throne, unlike his father who had been unable to assert his authority over Parliament. Amongst other things, this makes it unlikely that Charles’ success was based on the lessons of his father. Rather his decade in practical poverty during his exile likely taught him a thing or two about life was like for the common people of his kingdom. Throughout this intervening period Oliver Cromwell had been fairly effective in dampening royal support. Gradually it dawned that life under Cromwell was actually alright. No need to upset the apple cart then. 

Charles’ luck only began to change when Cromwell died suddenly. However, in a monarchical-like twist, his son Richard was appointed to succeed him. Yet within a year he was himself exiled, usurped by a council of his father’s advisors. Desperate for some stability the usurpers were eventually practically begging Charles II to return. 

It’s amazing how little things change, not just across ten years, but across hundreds. Succession planning is still the bane of Human Resources Management. We might not be restricted to having to pass a role on to the incumbent’s eldest son, although perhaps the comparative ease of this process is why many organisational talent management systems border on nepotism. Should new appointees seize Cromwellian power, stamping out any opposition, or wait patiently in the shoes of their subordinates until the time is right to assert leadership? 

Either way they are likely to live some time in the shadow of their predessessor, which luckily for 16th Century rulers was always dead on their accession. Not so these days where the previous title holder may be waiting in the wings, particularly where they have not left voluntarily. Nobody likes to believe they could be so easily replaced. Prejudice has always played a strong part in succession planning, be it the blood and religion of the Stuart dynasty, or the bias and jealousy of today. 

There were monarchs who bucked the trend. Consider Elizabeth I who achieved a long and successful reign, yet in order to do so she had to both play on her feminity and lead without trace of its influence. Again this rings all too familiar for women leaders today. Consequently this meant she failed in one of the utmost duties of a Queen – to provide an heir. Just one generation intervened between Elizabeth’s triumphant reign and that of Charles I (Elizabeth’s Aunt’s Great Great Grandson). A royal line ended and an extremely close call on the monarchy itself, all because of bad succession planning. 

Whether leadership is greater part nature or nurture may never be determined, although what is clear is that granting power is certainly not the same as bestowing leadership. In times of instability (whether that be civil war or a turbulent economy) objective, unpolitical, anti-power-grabbing advice is worth its weight in gold. I think nowadays we’d call that Human Resources. 

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