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Back to Archives | Back to November 2012 Contents 

Organization-Wide Leadership: Expanding the Traditional Succession Planning Model

By Mitchell P. Weinzetl, Chief of Police, Buffalo, Minnesota, Police Department

hat occurs within a police agency when the organizational leader vacates the position, whether the departure is planned or it occurs rather abruptly? Will the organization flounder, or will it move in a positive direction? How about the individuals within the organization; will they stay focused and on track, or will they become distracted and concerned about a future that seems uncertain?

The answer to these questions is simple: It depends greatly on the actions of organizations’ leaders during their tenures and through the periods leading up to their departures. If the agency head has engaged in sound leadership practices, and if a positive direction and a sound legacy have been established, the organizational direction will not only stay on course but may actually improve. This is not necessarily best accomplished through a process of succession planning as traditionally considered, but rather through an expanded process that intentionally engages organization-wide leadership and staff development practices.

The term leadership is broad and embodies a wide range of actions and behaviors that intend to lead and guide individual and organizational functionality and to produce specific outcomes. The most success ful law enforcement leaders are those who, through their actions and influence, create, support, and sustain the performance of an organization in a manner that is rooted in a commitment to performance excellence, ethical practices, professionalism, and service. Effective leaders assume the burden of setting the organizational tone and focus and also for establishing and maintaining the organization’s culture and values. This level of stewardship over the organizational ideals is an enormous responsibility, and because it is of paramount importance, it must ultimately rest squarely on the shoulders of the organization’s leader. The agency head must not only set and promote the organizational direction but also do this in a way that is accepted and supported by individuals within the organization. When executed properly, this will include engagement, contribution, and agreement by the organizational staff, as well as participation from key external stakeholders who have been identified.

If effective leadership is linked to the ability of the organizational leader to ensure a variety of positive organizational aspects—including establishing a foundation for the culture and core values of the agency and setting expectations for individual and organizational performance and other outcomes—then the concept of legacy leadership is related to how these principles and concepts are handed down over time from one generational leader to another.1 Also important is a foundational premise that “legacy-oriented leadership requires a strong continuity that addresses organizational practices and norms.”2 In essence, at its core, legacy-oriented leadership is about recognizing the positive aspects of the past, using the skills and experiences of the leader to build on these prior practices for the purpose of individual and organizational growth and improvement, and creating an atmosphere in which those who might someday ascend to the ranks of leadership in various positions can engage in and repeat this process.

Over the years, much has been said about the concept of succession planning, but what exactly is it? Most would agree that succession planning is a process throughwhich many organizations—public and private—prepare for the eventual departure of key leaders. Through this process, organizations engage in a variety of strategies to identify individuals who might eventually assume a primary leadership role, generally taking steps along the way to prepare these individuals for the transition. This can be important from a strategic perspective because “during a leadership change, a succession plan maintains the continuity of the agency’s mission and reduces uncertainty,” and it can also help ensure that the organizational legacy will remain intact.3

Despite the positive aspects of succession planning, there are some potential drawbacks to this process, particularly if a traditional succession planning model is engaged. In many police organizations, everyone has a pretty clear idea of who will be promoted to the next sergeant, lieutenant, or chief executive position. They know this because these promotions are often predictable to members of the organization based on a fundamental flaw in some succession planning models: “They are overly focused on identifying successors for a particular job or position and not on the future leadership needs of the organization.”4 In short, many succession planning models rely on identifying a particular individual to step into the next leadership role instead of working to establish solid leadership skills throughout the organization and among all staff. In fact, this replacement-oriented focus is cited as a key problem many managers identify in terms of their criticisms of various succession planning models currently in use.5

Because some succession planning models orient toward a particular individual or individuals, they can have detrimental effects on other staff members. In many police and sheriff’s agencies, the number of supervisory- and executive-level positions is small, and the frequency with which these opportunities arise is also very limited. Many officers have a desire to move up the ranks at some point in their careers, but they may become discouraged if they are overlooked for these positions or are unable to develop their personal leadership skills. This is particularly true as it relates to newer generations of workers who have a need to feel valued and want to increase their individual sense of self-worth by building marketable skills.6 Appropriate succession plans are “not necessarily focused on creating replacements but rather on making a solid plan for the future”7 of the organization; however, staff may become disenchanted, and the result may be turnover or other performance-related problems.

The alternative to a succession planning process that focuses on one person or a scant few individuals is to engage in a process of organization-wide leadership that targets everyone within the organization as having the potential to take on a formal leadership role. Organization-wide leadership is a concept in which each individual organizational member, regardless of one’s organizational role, is provided with the opportunity for instruction, guidance, and direction concerning leadership concepts and principles. For too long, leadership education and the accompanying philosophies have been reserved exclusively for those who are assigned to formal leadership roles. Additionally, more often than not, leadership education is not provided to these individuals until after the promotion occurs. Because of this back-end process of leadership development, many aspiring leaders miss the opportunity to develop an understanding of leadership principles early in their careers and also do not develop an understanding of how decisions are made that might impact them within their positions. This process also occasionally results in the promotion of individuals who have a misguided understanding of what their new roles entail, which can lead to operational problems.

Although only a handful of organizational members will ever be placed in formal leadership positions—particularly in those roles that include a leadership title and the associated pay and responsibility—many organizational members will be asked to take on leadership responsibilities related to projects or assignments, or they may simply become informal leaders within the organizational ranks because of their tenure, experience, charisma, or personality. While in these informal roles and settings, these individuals will shape and mold the organization based on their knowledge, their abilities, and their experiences. In order to ensure that the influence of informal or aspiring leaders is consistent with key aspects of the organizational legacy, formal leaders must engage in an intentional process of mentoring and guiding. This process must be looked upon as a marathon, not a sprint, however, because legacy and leadership elements are not the result of “swift interaction, but due to the accrual of modeling, educating, and feedback.”8

This type of mentoring and guiding cannot occur, however, without a proper foundation. Although it may seem a peculiar place to begin, a sound and comprehensive succession planning process must start with the competency of the organizational leader. For the legacy left behind by the organization leader to have any value, the leader must first ensure that the legacy is positive and productive and that it is one that others want to follow and maintain. There is an awesome responsibility on the part of the organizational leader in this regard: The individual must desire and endeavor to become the type of leader who others look up to and wish to emulate, and through that process, they must develop their own skills to a high level. Once the leader has developed a high degree of competency (something that should continually be worked on, for that matter), the individual can engage in a process of developing others in a way that will carry on the legacy.

One model that can be used to promote an individual and an organizational legacy, shown in figure 1, is the Leadership Replication Cycle (LRC).

Figure 1: The Leadership Replication Cycle (LRC)

The LRC process has two key components: The development of the capabilities of the individual leader, and the process through which the leader engages others within the organization in an effort to replicate the actions and behaviors of the formal leader. At its center, the LRC is a legacy-oriented leadership tool. The first steps of this model are designed to challenge the leader to actually become the leader that staff wants to follow. This occurs through a process of gathering information, reflecting upon what has been learned, and then using that knowledge and reflection to intentionally transform oneself, which ultimately helps individuals to engage in specific actions and behaviors that contribute to positive and effective leadership.

The second portion of the LRC is where the concepts of legacy-leadership and succession planning meet. In this section, the transformed leader uses skills and abilities to teach others within the organization, passing along not only the important aspects of leadership but also a process through which skills and abilities can be shared. The key benefits of this type of process (mentoring and modeling) are that the amount of effort is minimal, and, oftentimes, the delivery method is passive. “Mentoring is an effective and low-load way to pass on crucial knowledge, skills, and abilities in public organizations.” 9 It is important to note, however, that this second section is not merely a conduit to developing general leadership behaviors; it intends to replicate the leader’s style, actions, and behaviors to the extent that this is possible and practical.10 This is important because the replicable aspects of the organizational leader are, in essence, the legacy of leadership that is hoped to survive the leader’s eventual departure.

In addition to implementing a philosophy that promotes organization-wide leadership, organizations also should engage in an organized succession planning process. The IACP Leading by Legacy (LBL) program considers an open succession planning process, such as the one described in this article, to be a vitally important aspect of legacy-oriented leadership. To carry out this objective, the LBL program identifies four steps that can be used to create an environment that supports leadership development and an ongoing legacy.11

Step 1: Identify the potential talent within the organization. Whether through observations or conversations, try to determine who may be interested in taking on a leadership role within the organization. Keep in mind that not everyone who has a talent for leadership will show a direct interest. All supervisors and leaders should be constantly searching the ranks for the next great leader to emerge. Stay alert and watch for informal leaders who are impacting the organization in a positive way; this is a great way to identify future formal leaders.

Step 2: Provide training to those identified. Do not wait for talented people within the organization to come forward and ask for leadership training. Many prospective leaders are unaware of or too humble regarding their potential, and as a result, they will be reluctant to envision themselves in a leadership role. Invite all organizational members to any in-service leadership training offered, but strongly encourage attendance by those who may benefit the most from the training.

Step 3: Mentor the individuals who show promise. Once potential leaders are identified, take the time to teach them. These individuals will need nurturing and guidance in order to learn and grow into the leaders of tomorrow. When possible, invite these individuals to important meetings so they can observe and learn from those who are present. Most importantly, model the behaviors that are most essential in promoting and maintaining the organizational legacy.

Step 4: Empower staff to make key decisions within the agency. Assigning responsibilities to aspiring leaders is a great way to measure their interests and their capabilities. It also affords them the opportunity to ease into leadership roles without feeling overwhelmed. When working on developing staff who are already supervisors, share important issues and discussions, such as those that relate to policy, procedure, or disciplinary matters. Afford them a voice, but also explain how leadership decisions are made so that they can gain insight and understanding.

Succession planning is an important tool that can help ensure continuity of operations for the organization and that the organizational legacy will survive the departure of the organizational leader. To safeguard against being caught unprepared, it is critical that organizations establish a clear plan in advance. Succession planning should be “a thorough process designed to ensure the continued effective performance of an organization by planning for the development and replacement of key people when the need arises.”12 It is important to remember, however, that this process should not rely on a myopic focus; consideration—and attention—should be given to everyone. A strong and successful strategy for succession planning should include an organization-wide leadership philosophy; establishing replicable leadership behaviors that teach, promote, and reinforce critical core values and a positive organizational culture; and a step-by-step process, which ensures that the plan is thoughtfully carried out and executed. Organizational leaders are responsible for constructing and implementing a plan to carry forward the organizational legacy, and a process that intentionally works toward this end will help promote a positive outcome. ♦


1International Association of Chiefs of Police, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Leading by Legacy: Leadership and Management Training for Rural Law Enforcement Agencies (Alexandria, Va.: IACP, 2010).
2J. Patrick Dobel, “Managerial Leadership and the Ethical Importance of Legacy,” International Public Management Journal 8, no. 2 (2005): 237.
3Leading by Legacy: Leadership and Management Training for Rural Law Enforcement Agencies, 91.
4Robert Barnett and Sandra Davis, “Creating Greater Success in Succession Planning,” Advances in Developing Human Resources 10, no. 5 (October 2008): 724.
6Jeff Minerd, “Bringing Out the Best in Generation X,” The Futurist 33, no. 1 (January 1999).
7Kathleen Dodd and Carolyn Simons, “Succession Planning—Securing Your Organization’s Future,” Home Health Care Management Practices 17, no. 5 (2005): 401.
8Dobel, “Managerial Leadership and the Ethical Importance of Legacy,” 228.
9Bruce J. Pearlman, “Introduction: New Rules and Approaches for Succession Planning,” State and Local Government Review 42, no. 1 (April 2010): 49.
10Mitchell Weinzetl, Acting Out: Outlining Specific Behaviors and Actions for Effective Leadership (Springfield, Ill.: CC Thomas, 2010).
11Leading by Legacy: Leadership and Management Training for Rural Law Enforcement Agencies, 92.
12Dodd and Simons, “Succession Planning—Securing Your Organization’s Future,” 401.

Please cite as:

Mitchell P. Weinzetl, "Organization-Wide Leadership: Expanding the Traditional Succession Planning Model," The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 46–51.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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