The Crucial Aspect of Leadership Transition

by Dr. Michael Chung

So the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord which He had done for Israel. . .  When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. (Judges 2:7, 10)

Passing the Relay BatonLeadership is destiny. Therefore, one highly crucial endeavor a leader must undertake is transitioning to another. Stephen Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has as a core principle “to begin with the end in mind.” Since leadership tenure will have an ending, transition is inevitable, making transition preparation crucial.

There is evidence here in Judges 2:7, 10 that Joshua and the elders did not do a good job of transitioning leadership as Moses did. From Deuteronomy to Joshua, there is a seamless transition; in fact, one could argue that some of the most glorious years of the nation of Israel were the years under Joshua’s leadership, who followed Moses. One sees God give Israel victory after victory in the book of Joshua, but in Judges, the quantity of these victorious accounts are mitigated.

How can we infer that Joshua and the elders did not do a good job of leadership transition? Judges 3, after Israel slides into immorality, forsaking God and serving Baals and the Ashtoreths (Judges 2:13), God raises up Othniel, Caleb’s younger brother. The fact that he is Caleb’s younger brother communicates that Israel’s descent into immorality happened not too long after the death of Joshua. Caleb, Othniel’s older brother, was five years older than Joshua. We can infer that Joshua and the elders did not transition well based on the fact that Othniel would have been a contemporary of Caleb and Joshua, not too much time would have elapsed between Israel’s fall and Othniel being raised up by God.

Leadership transition is crucial. The fate of the group is dependent on it. From Moses to Joshua, we saw a transition that began during Moses’ lifetime, which led to Israel inheriting the land and enjoying great prosperity. But in Judges, Othniel comes unto the scene in order to rescue Israel from their immoral demise.

Why did such a poor transition occur? One possibility is that Joshua died at 110, maybe he thought he had 10 more years, as 120 years seemed like the age when God took his servants. Maybe Othniel was not ready at this time based on Caleb’s recommendation. Or maybe Joshua and the elders did not do their job correctly. Clearly from Scripture, Joshua’s transition was nowhere near as prosperous or blessed as Moses’. From two of Israel’s greatest leaders we can see that a good leadership transition (Moses to Joshua) can produce prosperity while a poor leadership transition (Joshua to ? to Othniel) can produce despair. How can one transition well?

Bill Hybels offers five suggestions. Hybels believes leaders need to “Turn over heaven and earth to make sure our churches are well led after we leave.[1] Then he offers some helpful hints (context is church leadership):

KEY #1: A great overall succession plan will have an extended planning phase

  • Ask and answer key questions
  • Who will choose the next leader?
  • What is the time frame?
  • How will the church honor the departing leader?
  • Hybels shared his time frame at age 61: 5-10 years
  • Hybels indicated that their planning phase was at least one year

KEY #2: The right person must engage the pastor in the extended planning phase

  • The person must have incredibly high trust with the leader
  • The person must to be a person of high emotional intelligence
  • The person must be patient as the planning questions cannot be rushed

KEY #3: The plan must outline how internal and external candidates will be considered

  • At Willow Creek, they will thoroughly consider internal candidates first
  • Hybels indicated that this creates excitement internally for potential candidates

KEY #4: You can’t overestimate how deep emotions run for a pastor-leader

  • This is heightened for founding pastors
  • NOTE: You could sense Hybels discomfort in even addressing the subject
  • Hybels predicts a generational flux of leaders will be tested in the next 10 years

KEY #5: Leaders must be challenged to leave a legacy

  • Hybels was asked, “Are you going to die someday?”
  • He was then asked, “Do you plan to lead Willow until the day you die?”
  • Every leader knows that the greatest legacy is how the org is led after them
  • Hybels shared that he has more enthusiasm  because he can “see the finish line”[2]

The Harvard Business Review offers more suggestions (context is business leadership):

  • Be clear about your own legacy and the elements of your vision that are critical to your company going forward.
  • Discuss these with your current team. Engage them in owning these principles and shaping a long-term picture of the future.
  • Talk with the incoming leader about his or her agenda and how you can help position the agenda to increase receptivity.
  • Create a strong connection between the new leader and employees, including executives who may not have had a lot of input in the choice.
  • Work to help key customers and important stakeholders accept the new leader.
  • Complete the official transfer of power to the new leader in a visible and positive way.
  • If you’re remaining in the organization, be prepared to advise the new leader for a very short time period; don’t impose, but remain available and supportive.
  • When it is time, move on no matter how emotionally difficult it may be. Let go. And don’t look back.[3]

Though the above recommendations are based on different contexts, the principles are applicable to almost any form of leadership transition in any field. We have seen from the Bible that leadership transition can lead to prosperity or demise. One crucial aspect of leadership is to ensure those who come behind can also succeed. This is the current leader’s most crucial task before stepping down.


[1] accessed March 23, 2016.

[2] accessed March 23, 2016.

[3] accessed March 23, 2016.


Dr. Michael Chung has been an adjunct professor of Bible and Theology at Houston Christian University and adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, Houston extension. He can be reached at