In Japan, there is a hotel called Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan that is built around healing hot springs. This hotel has been operating continuously since 705 A.D., making it the longest continuously running hotel in the world. Even more impressive is that this hotel has been run by the same family for fifty-two generations. They have discovered a way to protect the mission, pass on leadership, and see their tenure as only a small part of a much longer and more significant history.
Each generation holds a collective commitment to protecting the mission and reputation of the establishment. As one report summarized, they “put their all into offering a spirit of service that stems from a shared desire to protect the inn. This unflagging commitment and hospitality is drawing attention from the hotel industries worldwide.”
Their team is focused on the mission, understanding their individual roles as part of a larger story. We might not be part of a multi-generation organization, but as followers of Jesus, we are part of a mission that extends far beyond us. We are invited to look far beyond the confines of our office, our strategic objectives, and our tenure, and recapture a bigger vision.
Number Our Days
While this might be slightly macabre, in my (Peter’s) desk drawer, I keep two letters: my resignation letter and my eulogy. My resignation letter reminds me that one day I will leave my role, and my eulogy reminds me to live today in light of what matters most.
While there are so many uncertainties in life, there is no uncertainty about whether we will transition from our role and whether we will one day breathe our last breath. When asked what surprised him most about life, Billy Graham answered simply, “The brevity of it.”
As Moses writes in Psalm 90, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” When we carry God’s perspective of our life, our perspective moves from nearsighted and temporal to global and eternal.
How would our leadership be different if we lived every day in light of the fact that we will eventually pass it on? How would it change if we became more aware of our mortality? In an attempt to explore this, I decided to write my eulogy. When I first told my wife, Laurel, about the idea, she laughed and said I was crazy. When I told her I wanted to invite my family and friends to my 40th birthday party and read it to them, she was certain I’d lost it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my eulogy had nothing to do with the kinds of things I have on my resume, nothing about my jobs or titles. It had everything to do with people, with issues of faith and love, and with gratitude to God and others. And after reading it to my family, we ate carrot cake, because carrots make it healthy, right?
And then we went on imperfectly loving each other.
That exercise allowed me to see the stark contrast between eulogy virtues and resume virtues, as author David Brooks writes about so brilliantly in his book The Road to Character. It’s far too easy to spend our best energies building resumes and our last days regretting it. In the end, none of our accomplishments, titles, or roles matter nearly as much as we think they do. When we stand before God, will the successes of even the biggest world-changer look anything but petty?
Beyond my eulogy, I wrote my resignation letter as a similar exercise to remember that one day I will walk out of my place of work. My days in my current role are numbered. One day, that letter will be opened by the board of directors. Hopefully, that day will also be marked by carrot cake and a celebration of all that God has done throughout this season.
Remembering our mortality helps us live today with purpose and clarity about what matters most. Similarly, remembering that we will one day transition from our current role invites us to build an organization to outlast any one season of leadership. We are entrusted with leadership for a limited time, but we are all interim leaders. The final exam will be how well we hand the baton to our successor to carry on the mission.
Focus on the Cathedral
Our vocations are callings from God, based on our gifts, passions, experiences, and opportunities. Our work is purposeful, and it is part of something so much bigger than merely our season of service.
Have you heard the old tale of the construction crew queried by a passerby?
“What are you doing?” a passerby asked the first worker.
“Stacking bricks,” he said flatly.
“And how about you?” a second worker was asked. “What are you doing?”
“Mixing cement,” he grunted.
Looking to the third worker, the passerby inquired, “And what are you doing?”
“I’m building a cathedral!” came the enthusiastic reply.
It’s easy to get ground down by the day-to-day tasks of mixing cement and stacking bricks. In the Middle Ages, thousands of “working stiffs” devoted their whole lives to doing that very thing, erecting places of worship that they would never see completed in their lifetime. This was the story of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, John the Baptist, and many other biblical heroes. Their mission grew and expanded long after they had passed. At the end of Hebrews 11, the writer notes that the many heroes of the faith were “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us they would be made perfect.”
What would it look like for us to carry this perspective into the organizations where we work and the missions we work toward?
We can follow in the footsteps of saints throughout history who worked with devout hearts and eyes of faith—people who are now receiving their eternal reward. While we have yet to see the fulfillment of our work, Paul offers a word of encouragement: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
Our lives are merely a drop in the ocean in view of eternity, and the missions of the organizations we lead are simply a gift to temporarily steward in the limited time we have been given.
“If our missions don’t span generations, they’re probably limited to human ambition,” shares Justin Straight, co-founder of LoanWell. As we think about succession planning, let’s begin with a fierce commitment to the mission that far outlasts any one leader’s tenure.
Jesus reminds us to “not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth.” Just as death has a way of re- minding us to make the most of life, an eye on succession has a way of reminding us to make the most of the opportunity to lead our organizations now.
How would we lead differently if we lived every day in light of our inevitable succession?
Author’s Note: To learn more about the postures and practices of successful succession, check out Peter Greer and Doug Fagerstrom’s book, Succession.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2021. It is being re-shared in 2023 to continue to encourage our readers.
About the Author
HOPE International is a global, Christ-centered economic development organization serving several continents. Prior to joining HOPE, Peter Greer worked internationally as a microfinance adviser in Cambodia and Zimbabwe and as managing director for Urwego Bank in Rwanda. He received a B.S. in international business from Messiah College and an MPP in political and economic development from Harvard’s Kennedy School. As an advocate for the Church’s role in missions and alleviating extreme poverty, he has co-authored several books, including “Mission Drift”, “Rooting for Rivals”, and “Created to Flourish”.