military succession ceremony

Succession of The Indispensable One

This is about succession. Succession in your family, your business, or anywhere else where you have become the indispensable person. The one whom everyone depends upon.


I witnessed succession last week as a dear friend assumed command of the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. The 11th “Imperial” Brigade, my old unit, has a mission to deploy PATRIOT missiles around the world and provide defense in dangerous geopolitical situations. These certainly have been in the news, of late. My friend is a Colonel, a twenty-plus year veteran, as is his predecessor in command. The outgoing commander had given two years of his career to training, leading, and executing a mission that was constantly evolving. Then, when I am sure he was finally feeling like he had everything to his standard, it was someone else’s turn.

In the Army, commanders change every two years, without fail. There are no fiefdoms, there is no retiring in the chair for a Brigade Commander.  They have to move on, with the only continuity being the mission that unites everyone serving with the same patch on their shoulder. The reward for doing this job well is not higher pay or a bonus. If anything, the compensation for a job well done will be a promotion to greater responsibility and the chance to lead more soldiers. Selfless service is part of the culture of military leadership and it is evident at a Change of Command ceremony.

The value that a commander creates during that two-year window stems from building a sustainable force able to do its job at a moment’s notice. Sustainable means that it can be handed off, on schedule, to the next person in charge without losing effectiveness. That schedule, that finality, is a shock to the ego. Success is defined by making it better for the next person. What a lesson for the rest of us.

Here is what I think households and businesses can learn from how the military handles succession:

What is Selfless is Sustainable. What is Sustainable is Valuable.

If you have created a leadership role in your family or your business that is dependent upon you, then it is likely not sustainable. Your surviving spouse will not see great value in the financial complexity that you managed for years and years. What he or she would like instead is clarity and simplicity. The person buying your business is not buying the ideas that are in your head.  They value the sustainable process and all of the management that you were able to delegate to a competent team. But it’s hard to get there. No wonder there is the temptation to stay in place, to build ourselves up to be the Indispensable One.


What if you knew the exact day your life’s work would be handed over to someone else? As a husband you would know the day you would die, and your finances would land in the lap of your grieving wife. As a business owner, you knew the day that the reins would be handed off to a successor, but not necessarily who that person would be. Would it change how you think about your role as the one in charge, the decider, the Indispensable One? I think it would. That fixed deadline would make it clear that your influence is finite. At a set point in the future, you will not be doing what you are doing now, and someone else will need to carry the torch and succeed from where you have left off.

I pose this because of a flaw that so many of us carry: The belief that we are invincible and perpetual. Neither of which is true, of course, but that doesn’t stop us from hoarding information about the family finances or our estate plan, hoping we will always be there to manage it all. It doesn’t stop the business owner from staying in the chair as the irreplaceable cog until change is an urgent matter. It makes sense. That is how we value ourselves. We are really important in these roles so we will stay in them as long as possible.

“There is no success without a successor,” said Peter Drucker. 

Effective succession means knowing who will carry on your work and how they will need to do it. What tools, relationships, and guidance will they need? Give yourself a deadline, and not a long one, to put all of those in place. It is selfless, sustainable, and valuable.

After succession, leaders can sometimes feel a bit lost. Here’s a look at finding identity after the reins have been handed over.

This blog was written on a flight back from El Paso, TX, a place where I lived for four years of my Army career. We pray for strength for that loving community in this most tragic time. We are also forever grateful for the sacrifices of the soldiers and families of Ft. Bliss who keep a vigilant watch.