Leadership Succession as Demonstrated by a Wrestling Legend

Photo from TMZ Sports, TMZ.com

Photo from TMZ Sports, TMZ.com

In early April, my favorite professional wrestler presumably announced his retirement by simply removing the items that were long associated with his character and leaving them in the ring. Mark Calaway (AKA: the Undertaker) has long been heralded as "old-school" due to his commitment to his character (never breaking kayfabe, which is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true") and his willingness to fight through injuries to entertain the fans. And it appears he lived up to that "old-school" moniker one last time in his final match and departure.

Many of you may be thinking, "Becky, you've lost your mind. First, you admit to liking professional wrestling and now you want us to think this has something to do with leadership. How in the world does the apparent retirement of a professional wrestler have anything to do with leadership succession?" I'm really glad you asked!

Wrestling has always had this unwritten code that when a wrestler retires, he/she should do so while helping another wrestler "get over" as part of his/her last feud and match. In effect, the "old-school" expectation is for a wrestler to use his/her retirement in such a way that it allows the next generation to become a strong "face" (the crowd favorite) or "heel" (the most hated). While some recent wrestling retirees have chosen to have their last matches with an opponent that's already a legend, Undertaker maintained his commitment to the "old-school" ways by trying to help Roman Reigns (a younger wrestler who's struggled to truly be face or heel) "get over." Whether that will be successful is hotly debated on social media, but regardless of whether it's successful, Undertaker recognized that his departure isn't just about him leaving; it's also about those who will have to replace him.

And, that's the primary succession lesson I wish other leaders would learn - you've worked hard, and you've earned the accolades that come with retirement, but recognize someone else has to step in and fill your role, so try to help him/her "get over" to a "face" if you have the opportunity. Too often, I think leaders see the next person who has to fill the role as the enemy. As if that person will somehow make everyone forget about the previous leader's positive contributions. I can assure you that doesn't happen. Because no matter how great of a character Roman Reigns becomes, no one can replace the Undertaker. But, they can stand side-by-side as legends in the future. And you could do that too with your successor, if you allowed it to happen.

I also wish leaders would recognize that it's okay to leave their "gear" in the ring. When Mark Calaway took off his coat, gloves, and hat, and stacked them neatly in the ring, he signaled that he would not return to that ring as the Undertaker again. While a small part of me hopes that it's a ruse and Undertaker will rise again, the larger part of me respects his willingness to leave all of himself out there in that moment, and walk away to a new adventure. I don't know exactly how Mark will spend his retirement, but I'm pretty sure he won't try to keep the Undertaker legacy alive. Don't get me wrong; I think he'll sign autographs for fans and acknowledge who he was in that ring, but I don't think he'll spend his time clinging to the glory days. Instead, I can see him pursuing completely different activities while still making himself available to mentor and coach aspiring wrestlers. As leaders, once our time in an organization is done, we need to leave that part of our work behind, and focus on other endeavors. Continued efforts to actively influence the organization can be dangerous. What we can do is encourage and challenge other leaders, wherever they may be.

In short, leadership succession fails when leaders aren't willing to help the next leader succeed and/or when leaders aren't willing to let go. I think Mark Calaway showed us how to do both, and that may be the part of his career I value most.

Thank you, Taker!
Becky