In June 323BC, Alexander the Great lay fatally ill in the Palace of Babylon. His companions were distraught. His only legitimate son was still in his mother’s womb. So, who would lead the greatest empire the world had seen?
After much argument, a compromise was reached under a general named Perdiccas. In what came to be known as the Partition of Babylon, the empire was divided among Alexander’s generals with overall kingship shared between Alexander’s infant son Alexander IV and his half-brother Phillip.
This lasted for two years till Perdiccas was killed. This signaled a free for all between the generals each of whom used his division of the empire as a power base. Phillip and Alexander IV were both murdered in the subsequent confusion and Alexander’s empire tore itself to pieces.
In August 1227, Genghis Khan died. Towards the end, he had pleaded with his people and his descendants to “guard the good rule of the future”. Yet within 10 years, his son Ogedei was trying to gobble up the territories held by his brothers and sisters. By the time of his grandson, Khublai Khan, the pattern of internecine warfare had been established which was to ruin the empire.
In later times, both the Mughal and Ottoman empires ruined themselves in wars of succession.
Modern successions may not be as violent, but remain as troublesome. Gandhi understood this and had clearly established Nehru as a successor and got this accepted by all the then leading figures of the Indian National Congress. When he was murdered, the nation entered mourning, but moved on under Prime Minister Nehru with the full support of all other Congress leaders.
Regrettably this lesson was lost. Nehru himself used the Kamaraj Plan to purge his party of all he suspected of trying to succeed him. The resulting power vacuum when he died could only be filled temporarily until the rise of his daughter Indira. No Indian leader since has as paid sufficient attention to the question of succession or on building strong tier 2 leadership as evidenced by the large number of octogenarians who continue to hold key positions in most political parties.
The business world is also replete with stories of failed successions. Will Bonner described the collapse of the Vanderbilt fortune in Early to Rise magazine here.
Within just 30 years of the death of the Commodore no member of the Vanderbilt family was among the richest in the US. And 48 years after his death, one of his grandchildren is said to have died penniless.
In less than a single generation the surviving Vanderbilts had spent the majority of their family wealth! And the wealth was virtually gone within four generations.
One of the most distinguished managers I have personally known started looking for a successor within a year of his occupying a post. When he finally left over 6 years later, he had tested a number of candidates with responsibility and clearly established a deputy who could take over after him.
Ironically, perhaps the best succession was that of Phillip of Macedon by Alexander the Great. Phillip spared no expense in his son’s education. Even as he perfected the Macedonian military machine, he brought Aristotle to teach his son the art of government. By his death, he had built both the greatest power in Greece, but also the man who would lead it to its greatest glory. Today, Phillip is mainly known for being Alexander’s father.
The greatest leaders are often overshadowed by their successors.
- The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford (2010)
- With two Presidents: The inside story, Maj C L Datta (1970)