• Leadership Succession in “Whale Rider”

    Whale Rider (2003) is a great movie about family, tradition, and maintaining your identity and values in the modern world, and so much more. It also touches on leadership succession planning—passing leadership on to the next generation. All of these issues are relevant to the work world.

    Leadership Succession Planning

    The movie features a quest for a new leader—a leadership succession planning project. A former leader is working hard to identify and develop younger leaders. New leaders are needed to preserve and protect the tradition and to lead their community into the future. The future of their community is at stake.

    As you watch the movie, track the different tactics that are used to develop the next generation of leaders. Purely at the tactical level: are they doing the right kind of things; what tactics are they missing; could they do more? Is there any other way—do we not also have to do the same kinds of things when we do leadership succession planning in our organizations?

    The new leader, it turns out, comes from an unsuspecting place. What can we learn from that about identifying our future leaders? Are we casting a wide enough net, and giving as many people as possible opportunities to learn and grow (this is the underlying project of Gladwell’s Outliers)?

    Qualities of a Leader-to-Be

    At first blush, you might assume that this new leader (and the situation itself) are so unique that not much would apply to leadership in modern organizations. But if you take a minute to list all this leader’s unique strengths, you will find that they are shared by many leaders in all walks of life: persistence, integrity, courage, and innovation. This new leader cares deeply for the community; is willing to lead by example and take risks; and so on. Which of those attributes and skills do you admire most; which have you seen in leaders you admire; which do you have; which do you want more of? It would be interesting to compare and contrast her strengths to those of Gandhi and Patton (other blogs, coming soon).

    Note that this new leaders is also a bit of a rule breaker, a maverick. She is in fact disobedient, which is an enormous problem for the community’s leader—the elder who is trying to keep the community together. Rule breaking poses real risks and dangers to communities and organizations. It can disturb important practices that have been finely honed for generations. Not only that, but it can be a sign of disloyalty and can even bring about mutiny. But is disobedience always bad? A certain kind of disobedience to tradition, a certain kind of rule breaking and questioning the status quo, is essential to innovation, experimenting, testing new ideas, charting new paths, and moving forward.

    This raises a very important question—extremely important to get right at a practical level: What kind of innovation and questioning, and how much of it, can we tolerate in our quest to build strong, healthy, functional, living, innovative cultures in our organizations?

    Tradition vs. Progress

    Finally, the movie raises important questions about tradition vs. progress. Which is more important during this leadership succession? Do we need them both? If so, what is the right kind of balance? How do we balance tradition (what’s worked in the past, what is still working for us today) with innovation (the drive for improvement, progress)? How can we have them both—how can we achieve this, practically speaking? With respect to your organization, which of your traditions are most worth preserving? And which of your traditions and core values can you preserve and honour even as you push hard for progress? In reality, these are real questions that organizational leaders need to ride.

    Beautiful movie. Enjoy.

    Copyright © 2016 Joel Shapiro, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

    Joel Shapiro is a leadership educator and culture guru with Incrementa Consulting in Calgary, Canada. Joel is passionate about developing leadership capacity, making employees part of the solution, and finding the perfect blend of humanity and business performance. You can read more of Joel’s thoughts on the Incrementa website and on Twitter.

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