Air University Review, May-June 1985

Change of Command:
Leader Succession in The Military Organization

Dr. Ray W. Coye

Succession of the formally appointed organizational leader is an occurrence with which all organizations must cope. At some time in the life of the organization, public or private, changes in leadership take place. These changes will, in all likelihood, bring about some form of organizational instability.1

Research on the processes and consequences of leadership succession is limited. That evidence which is available is predominantly in the form of case analyses of individual organizations. In these studies, one common theme emerges: a change of leadership is disruptive to an organization. Numerous investigations document such disruptive consequences as disintegration of cohesive work groups, increased tension among employees, increased turnover, and even acts of violence and sabotage.

Succession is disruptive to organizations because it sets the conditions for the development of new policies, disturbs the traditional norms of the organization, and promotes changes in the formal and informal relationships among members or the system.... Succession can (simultaneously) promote conflict among the staff and lower employee morale, consequences that are obviously dysfunctional in terms of their contribution to a lack of organizational cohesiveness and a general decrease in the effective functioning of the system."2

Generally the research supports the assertion that the disruption associated with succession stems from an upsetting of the normative standards in the organization. With the departure of the predecessor from the organization go unique characteristics of policy interpretation, interpersonal relations, style of leadership, and other role behaviors.3 "However, what is more important is that which happens to the general social system of the organization as the successor takes over. Because it is a natural time for reasserting old felt needs and presenting new ones to the new audience and judge, succession is often accompanied by a change in the way things are."4

Shouldn't members of a military organization, so used to changes of assignment and of command, find that succession problems are minimal? The routinization of this process of change in bureaucratic organizations, in fact, does result in reducing the likelihood of disruption from some typical succession-related variables. For example, since rotation is the normal reason for change, there may be less concern with issues about the success or failure of the departing commanding officer. Additionally, it may be difficult if not impossible (especially in operational units) to make sweeping changes in the staff officer group, a tactic common in private-sector successions. These factors, associated with frequent and routine leader changes, do not result in the complete absence of disruption, however.

One approach to understanding succession dynamics divides the process into pre- and post-arrival phases.5 This model provides a straightforward, comprehensive framework within which various aspects of a change of command situation can be considered. An awareness of those factors which contribute to the disruption associated with change of command can be a valuable asset for the prospective commanding officer.

Three aspects of the pre-arrival phase are pertinent to military succession: the actual and perceived characteristics of the successor, the group's experience with succession in general, and the new leader's mandate.

Although change of leadership at the division or department level may involve internal (unit) movement, change at the command level most often results in movement into the unit from other sources. At this level, the expectations of subordinates concerning characteristics of the unknown successor become important. Considerable evidence indicates that unmet expectations can be dysfunctional to the individual and the organization.

Although providing realistic job previews for the new commander has had some impact on reducing problems of unmet expectations, similar "realistic leader previews" for those in an organization that is receiving a new commander may not be a viable option. Consequently, the information available to subordinates about a new commanding officer is likely to come from the rumor mill. In certain functional specialties (or in the Coast Guard and perhaps the Marine Corps with their relatively small officer corps), an officer at the 0-4 or 0-5 level may be preceded by his or her reputation. By the time an individual reaches 0-6, even in the most populous specialties someone at the new unit is usually able to provide sufficient information for the rumors to begin circulating. The result of this process is the establishment of expectations (quite possibly unrealistic) in unit members well before the new commanding officer arrives. Although not conclusively established, it seems reasonable that the more closely matched the actual and perceived characteristics of the successor, the more likely that a smooth relationship will develop after the change of command. This does not imply that subordinates are necessarily pleased with the relationship; it simply means that they know where they stand.

Since leader succession is routine in the military, members expect it, and many will have experienced the process previously. This expectation of and experience with the process can also result in difficulties for the new commanding officer. A unit in which the major assigned task normally involves interdependence between the leader and subordinates, when faced with frequent command changes, may restructure itself to minimize the role of the leader in that task.6 Thus, a new commanding officer may be faced with an essentially empty job and with strict unit norms of noninterference.

The final pre-arrival factor relates to the mandate given the new commanding officer. For existing units, it is not uncommon to hear comments indicating that the new commander was given the unit in order to reduce downtime, improve combat readiness, raise crew morale, or make other specific changes, In reorganization situations, mandates may be issued to establish new operational units, combine existing units, or carry out a myriad of other possibilities. Such mandates often result in disruption brought about by changing the role relationships that currently exist between the command and unit members.

With the arrival of the new commanding officer at the unit, post-arrival factors come into play: the mutual observation process, the successor's actions and reactions, and the power and influence source.

During the initial observation phase, subordinates are likely to make comparisons between the new and the old. Even if disliked earlier, the predecessor may be idealized when compared to the successor.7 Also during this phase, both the new commanding officer and the unit members indicate and evaluate role expectations. The interpretation of these role messages by all concerned results in establishing patterns for future behaviors.

During the initial observation phase, subordinates begin to evaluate the successor's actions and reactions, judging the new leader's behavior in relation to their expectations. Although official descriptions of superior roles may exist, evaluation usually is on the basis of the informal standards represented in these expectations. Ralph Stodgill, in his comprehensive review of leadership, concluded that "leader behavior which conforms to follower expectations is associated with follower satisfaction."8 One of the crucial issues with which the new commanding officer must deal is the necessity for gathering information. Knowledge about the formal and informal modes of operation in the unit is of vital importance if the commander is to administer the responsibilities of command effectively. The good buddy and the prolific directive/memo writer are typical and opposing examples of successor reactions to this information need. The buddy may carry to extreme the use of existing social networks to acquire and pass information, while the writer resorts to increased formalization and rigid application of policy to accomplish the same end.

Although comprehensive coverage of power and influence processes is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is important to note that a succession situation may be characterized by changes in the nature of the power source. Clearly, the new commanding officer, upon arrival, has legitimate power associated with both assignment to command and the personal rank or grade. Other sources of power may be nonexistent or may not be in evidence until the initial observation and action-reaction phases are well under way. Over time, unit members will assess the new commanding officer's expertise, task competence, leadership skills, personal attractiveness, and other attributes that seem important to them. Unit member perceptions of these aspects may become increasingly important, providing (or denying) additional sources of power and influence for the commanding officer and, ultimately, affecting unit success and mission accomplishment.

The key to minimizing problems associated with a change of command is awareness of the potentially disruptive influences inherent in the succession process. Unit members establish expectations about a new commanding officer's characteristics and behavior, evaluating reality, as they see it, in terms of those standards. Additionally, some unit members, in anticipation of the change, may be preparing to reinitiate old requests, reopen old controversies, or otherwise situate themselves to take best advantage of the process. Such activities may serve to promote better morale or more effective operations in the long run, but unless understood in the context of the succession process, these may simply add to the burden and confusion felt by the successor.

It is impossible to provide the prospective commanding officer with prescriptions to cover all contingencies. The model presented here may be helpful as a framework through which commanding officers and subordinates can evaluate past experiences with leadership succession or consider aspects of forthcoming changes of command.

University of Wyoming


1. Oscar Grusky, "Administrative Succession in Formal Organizations," Social Forces, December 1960, pp. 105-15.

2. Ibid., p. 106.

3. Donald L. Helmich, "Executive Succession in the Corporate Organization: A Current Integration," Academy of Management Review, April 1977, pp. 252-56.

4. R. Carlson, Executive Succession and Organizational Change (Danville, Illinois: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1962), p. 42.

5. Gil E. Gordon and Ned Rosen, "Critical Factors in Leadership Succession," Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, April 1981, pp. 227-54.

6. Ibid., p. 243.

7. Ibid., p. 246.

8. Ralph Stodgill, Handbook of Leadership (New York: The Free Press, 1974), p. 416.


Ray W. Coye (U.S. Coast Guard Academy; M.B.A., State University of New York at Buffalo; Ph.D., University of Oregon) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Management at DePaul University, Chicago. Previously, he was Assistant Professor in the Department of Business Administration, University of Wyoming at Laramie. Dr. Coye has extensive experience as an instructor and researcher in organizational behavior and human resource management.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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