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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

When Your Predecessor Won't Leave


Principal succession is a significant event in the life of a school. It creates high levels of anxiety. But very little information exists to help support the successor when the predecessor casts a long shadow, hangs around -- and won't leave.

Robert completed a successful, 20-year tenure as principal of High Point Elementary School. He received numerous accolades upon his retirement and participated in the selection of his successor, Jose, a young teacher with four years experience at the school. As expected, the school staff was anxious about the change in leadership because Robert had developed strong, positive relationships with many of them. But even his most loyal friends and supporters were surprised by what happened after he retired. He just wouldn't go away!

Similar situations play out in a variety of ways. It is quite natural that anytime a "legendary leader" leaves a school there will be a transition period; and that the transition period is bound to present obstacles and pitfalls for both the successor and predecessor. For those who remain behind, many long for their former leader and a sense of consistency in their professional lives.

As for Jose, he never felt fully accepted by the "old guard" who worshipped Robert. As the new school year started and he began discussing his vision for the school, there was more resistance than expected. He felt stung when he learned that Robert was participating in frequent conversations regarding the transition out in the community. What Jose heard about his leadership style wasn't negative or derogatory, but the thought that his predecessor had such an extensive reach into the community and influence with his staff unnerved him.

To make things worse, Robert often visited the school to "check on things and people."


Frustrated, Jose made a wise choice. He sought solace by confiding his feelings with his mentor, David.

David helped Jose focus on the natural processes of leadership succession and cope with his emotional reactions to them. He helped Jose understand and appreciate the feelings of abandonment and the grieving that teachers were experiencing following Robert's retirement. David listened, questioned, and guided Jose to focus on others' needs, even those of Robert as he worked through his major life change.

David and Jose talked on the phone frequently and met weekly to discuss transition issues as they developed. David's advice helped Jose focus on:

  • Developing a plan of continuity to sustain and build upon Robert's goals and successes
  • Healing the wounds of disruption caused by Robert's departure
  • Building positive relationships with staff, parents, and students
  • Creating a culture of openness and accessibility
  • Preserving the existing values of the school rather than creating new ones
  • Viewing Robert's legacy as an asset rather than a threat
  • Avoiding the pitfalls of gossip about, and disrespect for, his predecessor

Leadership succession is often undermined by poor planning. Wise school-district leaders develop comprehensive succession plans. They anticipate trends and issues such as the number of teachers fast approaching retirement age and other unique needs for which a new leader will need to be skilled. Effective district leaders also realize that the process of leadership transition takes time and that new leaders must be supported -- by mentors -- as they work through unforeseen issues that naturally occur.

  • Trained mentors have observed and experienced many leadership transitions. They help their mentees see both sides of an issue; and they help their mentees cope with their needs as well as those of others, especially the predecessor.
  • Exiting principals, especially retirees, need time to break the bonds of daily contact with former professional colleagues. The wise successor learns to support that individual's letting-go, celebrate the legacy, and avoid any actions that lead to hurt feelings.
  • Effective leaders know they must leave in a strategic and sensitive manner. But it takes varying amounts of time for different individuals to do that. Most desire to groom and help their successors. And sometimes their passion causes them to get in the way. The smart successor displays patience, understanding, empathy, and support. Wisely handled, they gain an ally, admirer, advocate, coach, and friend.

Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003 and retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. He is an author with Corwin Press,, and School-Age Notes. He and his wife, Gertrude, a music teacher, live in Lancaster.

Article by Paul Young
Copyright © 2008 Education World®