Community Leadership Succession Planning Should Begin Today


Andre FowlkesWe should begin asking ourselves where we want to be in 20 years as a community, and who will be the leaders at the helm.  The leaders of today will be retired and we do not have a succession plan to ensure the vibrance and growth of the Memphis community.


The Memphis succession plan should increase the availability of experienced and capable leaders in both the public and private sectors. Further, we should certainly look at macro level leadership replacement in key positions as well as managing pools of talent for a feeder system for the community. There are great organizations that work in this space every day, although they may call it something different like talent or leadership development. Organizations like the New Memphis Institute, Leadership Memphis, Memphis Urban League of Young Professionals, Memphis Institute of Leadership Education, and so many more are managing investments in leadership development in our community. However, I believe our community can do a lot more and that we cannot afford to let one opportunity slip through our fingers. We need to identify, cultivate, lead, place, and show talent what the next stage of their careers could be.  The ownership falls on us to reach back and move tomorrow’s leaders along whether that be one-on-one or through support groups.

At all times we must be grooming talent for political leadership, social leadership, business leadership, community leadership, innovation leadership, and so much more.  We must be careful to not let the status quo get in the way.  What may be working today will not work tomorrow.  We cannot groom people as if things will be the same when we know they won’t.

While cultivation of new leaders and succession planning is necessary, it is not sufficient. Current leaders will need to be intellectually honest and introspective to determine if they should remain in leadership positions today.  If we cannot think outside the status quo, then we must remove ourselves from leadership positions.

There are many in this community that do not believe this is necessary because they feel that leaders of a community cannot be groomed; either they will step up or they will not.  This attitude accepts defeat while our community remains the most poor, underemployed, and undereducated cities in the US.  We have latent leadership talent in our community — those who do not know that it is possible for them to lead — we need to teach them otherwise.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Taking from this speech: The Man in the Arena, it is up to our current leaders to make sure that we at minimum create the opportunity for more Memphians to get into the arena while providing space for those in the arena to grow and succeed.  In the startup world we build founders with a similar philosophy.  We give founders the space to take real actions and learn from them — we allow them to fail in small ways while prevent them from fatally wounding their startups.  Leaders are made if not forged through trials — successes and failures — when provided such opportunities.

Sure, not all will become our next Mayor, City Council Member, the next Fred Smith, the next Lucius Burch, or Robert Church; however, they will have the qualities of leadership in whatever they pursue.  It starts with current leaders reaching back to bring tomorrow’s leaders along.  At Start Co. we say to our growing founders that “they must lift as they climb” — that is to give back to the next generation of founders while continuing to grow their own businesses — a continuum of founders all at various stages reaching back to help.  Current and growing leaders in all aspects of our community have the same obligation.

Think about whom you want to lead our city 20 years from now and what type of city you want them to lead.  Laying out our community succession plan today may be the missing ingredient to moving our community forward.

Andre Fowlkes is co-president of Start Co. He can be reached at