‘Succession Planning’, teleology, and the tyranny of the urgent


If, by any chance, you have noticed Oxford House’s ‘Weekly Briefings’ have been far from weekly in the past two or three months, I am both grateful and (a little) embarrassed. The simple fact is – apart from a three-week encounter with a new COVID variant (that prevented an important trip to China) – I have been giving considerable time to ‘Succession Planning’ (along with numerous other on-going projects). It is an exercise I have watched others more or less successfully undertake over the years. I hope I have learned from their good and bad examples. Some have managed a seemingly seamless transition to new leadership and their own productive retirement. But, in my experience, too many Founders have been slayers of their creation, and good ideas and initiatives fallen to pieces for lack of care and preparation. Why? Some Founders, like (too) many CEOs, Cabinet Ministers and Clergy, won’t let go, dread retirement, can’t trust others to take things forward effectively, and/or are generally – and irritatingly! – meddlesome. I am immensely grateful, therefore, that the very experienced Peter Jones CMG, until recently Chief Operating Officer at the UK Foreign Office (FCO), and overseer of the early stages of the fusion of the FCO with DFID (Department for International Development; hence now FCDO), will chair the ‘transition’ process and a very experienced Transition Team. Oxford House is in very safe hands – and, thankfully, they are not my hands!

The whole process of pondering and preparing for the future – in my case, to enable me to do some of the things I have always done, or wanted to do, while supporting Oxford House in whatever way/s my successors suggest – has shed light on the present. It has made me see the importance of what is technically a ‘teleological’ perspective; that is, seeing things from their end or purpose. Western thinking on this traces its roots to Plato and Aristotle, with the latter proposing ‘four causes’ for things, with particular value being assigned to their end, final, or ultimate cause, in Greek their telos. Planning for the future of anything without being able to say what its purpose is is, of course, balmy – but it is amazing how often it happens. It is also an incomparable aid to countering what Charles E. Hummel (d. 2004) famously called ‘The tyranny of the urgent’, the ‘Must do NOW!

Plato and Aristotle, depicted in The School of Athens by Raphael (Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia)

As a family we would sometimes go out on ‘magical mystery tours’ (indeed, my wife and I still do) not knowing where we would end up. That’s all very well when there is little at stake apart from having a pleasant break. It doesn’t work for a company, a community, a country or any kind of intentional operation. Yes, we may need to improvise along the way in any (ad)venture we undertake, but to aim for nothing is, as they say, to achieve little if anything. It is essential, therefore, for ‘Succession Planning’ to ask, ‘So, what’s this project about?’ In our case, ‘So what is Oxford House about?’ Or, as fundraisers and management consultants have challenged me in the US, ‘What’s your elevator pitch, Chris?’

In case you are wondering – or we have failed to make this clear on the Oxford House website (www.oxfordhouseresearch.com) – our aim is to ensure culture, ethics and spirituality are fully integrated in contemporary geopolitical analysis and praxis. Their wilful, or accidental, exclusion by cynical, secular, Western powers, and habitual (at times hostile) role in non-Western situations, are game-changing realities with potentially disastrous consequences. Think of the lack of sound cultural and religious awareness – to say nothing of the lack of a robust ethical view of foreign policy in general – before allied forces swept into action in Iraq or Afghanistan. Think how little outsiders understand the political and cultural character of radical Hinduism in President Modi’s India, or the changing profiles of Christianity and Islam in Africa, or the implications for the world of a post-Christian America or a nuclear theocracy in Iran. Understanding and engaging with such issues is the telos of Oxford House, and along the way my outstanding, ever-growing, team of Associates seek to enhance ‘the common good’. What a privilege it has been. What a vocation for those who follow after me.


Defining an ‘end’, and constructing a process towards it, raises all sorts of important issues. It is little wonder ‘teleological’ thinking has found its way into modern medicine and business management, science and economics, to say nothing of modern, and postmodern, philosophy and theology. The ‘end’, after all, far from simply ‘justifying the means’ (as Machiavelli would argue), also orientates and evaluates, focusses and prunes, sharpens thinking and gives point and purpose to endeavour. Artefacts may be explained by the hands and tools that made them, but they exist for so much more, viz. to reflect beauty, to cut cloth, to hold water, to close a wound, and any number of other ‘ends’ their creators devise for them or through them. Yes, there may be a certain predetermined coherence in the what and how and why of things, so the act of creativity and the created object possess an instinctual or intentional conformity of ‘process’ to ‘end’, but more often than not the ‘end’ explains the care, the labour, the techniques employed and the skills required to realise it.

Niccolό Machiavelli (1469-1527) (Wikipedia)

Teleological thinking has impacted different disciplines in remarkably consistent ways. To anyone planning a project, or a transition in leadership, it offers important perspectives. This is not say teleological method and teleology per se haven’t had detractors and critics: it is to say, such criticisms notwithstanding, ‘teleological thinking’ provides a creative, adaptable, regulatory, resource – or at least another way of looking at things, which is rarely a bad thing.

Four consistent impacts of a teleological approach deserve note and comment.

(Digital Marketing)

First, a telelogical approach focusses attention on the who, or what, makes things happen. As I look to hand over the day-to-day operation of Oxford House, my Transition Team will want to know what I have been doing in the past (and present) in order to plot and plan for who or what needs to be put in place going forward. This potential for a very personal application of teleology is one of the reasons it has fallen out of favour in some circles. A mechanistic mindset that looks for material and efficient causes – or, in biology, impersonal evolutionary forces – resists confusing consequence with any kind of conscious intention. Stuff happens. Species adapt. Systems are autonomous. There is no controlling ‘grand designer’ or worthy ‘meta-narrative’ to explain what is, and why things happen. As Aristotle (382-322 BCE) argued, ‘natures’ do not deliberate: natural ‘ends’ are the fruit of ‘natures’ at work. However powerful, popular, and attractive this reductionist view of ‘means’ and ‘ends’, it has had its own set of detractors inside and outside disciplines in which it would be assumed to flourish. So, modern economics recognizes the importance of ‘confidence in the market’, management studies the role of ‘character’ in leadership, evolutionary biology the place of ‘consciousness’ and rationality in the development of species, and postmodern philosophy the legitimacy of admitting ‘randomness’ and ‘irrationality’ in propositions and conclusions. Of course, it isn’t only teleology that asks who or what makes things happen? But a teleological approach is apt to want to delve below the surface of events to ask, ‘Who, or what, drove this forward?’ Or, put another way, ‘Where does, or did, the energy for this come from?’ The challenge for a good Transition Team is to be able to distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘institutional’ drivers to ensure a venture does not die when a leader steps away (for whatever reason).

(Voice at the Table)

Second, a telelogical approach focusses on how, and why, things happen. The issue now is not so much the driver, or drivers, of a venture but the causes and motivation behind them. What causes things to happen has been debated for millennia. Primary, ancillary and ultimate ‘causes’ – and the extent to which ‘ends’ are built into ‘causes’ – has confronted, and often confounded, the brightest and best. To keep things simple here, we can, I suggest, confidently assume a ‘teleological’ perspective ensures the attention and planning of a Board, business, government, or any number of other organisations and operations, will include the deeper issues of ‘primary’ causes and ‘ultimate’ motivation. This will take them to reconsideration of their vision, mission and values. Together they will search for the deep reasons for their success and failure, their organisational strengths and weaknesses, their capacity to keep and lose clients and voters, friends and fellow-travellers. As I learned years ago in a pastoral counselling context, ‘The presenting issue is not necessarily the real issue.’ Wisdom and wise leadership is ready to look beneath the surface and speak into and out of deep dynamics in institutional and human ‘causation’ and ‘motivation’. I am quietly anticipating – and hoping – the first-class Transtion Team working to take Oxford House 1.0 to Oxford House 2.0 will be all over these issues. I am also steadying and readying myself for the uncomfortable questions they may ask me about how and why we got to where we are.

(Psychology Today)

Third, if a teleological approach asks about ‘drivers’ and ‘causes’, it also examines ‘means’ and ‘ends’, and, crucially, the relationship between them. In medicine, a teleological perspective will not only consider treatments but side-effects. It will also ask about the well-being of the patient if procedures are pursued or support withdrawn. It will face with loved ones the toughest questions about turning off life-support and preparing for end of life care. But it isn’t only medicine that asks searching questions about ‘means’ and ‘ends’, so does the coach and sports competitor, the entrepreneur and advocate, the judge and jury, the playwright and performer. The end, the goal (literally, sometimes), the prize, the accolade, the healthy balance sheet, and a host of other ‘ends’, are in their different ways all expressions of a thoughtful, professional, intentional – and, ideally, successful – negotiation between ‘means’ and ‘ends’. So a better golf swing lands the ball on the green more often – and lowers a handicap or wins the competition. Close attention to the text of a play prepares the actor for her role and sets her on course for an Oscar. The attorney’s work on their latest brief prepares them for court and the tough task of persuading a jury. Issues of excellence and success inhabit the complex, dynamic interface between how I do something and to what end I do it. Here quality control and evaluation, training and examination, work and rewards, all have their place. A teleological approach will work to ensure, and demonstrate, excellence, process, and achievement, matter. I grew up believing ‘Could do better’ on my school reports was a criticism (and it often was!): now, I believe ‘Could do better’ to be a wise executive’s guiding mantra. I certainly hope the team overseeing the transition of Oxford House from 1.0 to 2.0 believe the organisation ‘could do better’. I certainly do.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, a teleological approach risks asking ‘theought question’. It isn’t only interested in the ‘drivers’, ‘causes’ and ‘means and ends’ of things: it asks about, and looks for, the morality of actions and the ethics of ends. It scrutinizes means and motivation, claimed causes and the real reason for things. It doesn’t shrug its shoulders and say, ‘What must be must be’, or ‘It can’t be helped’. It questions whether ends always justify means, and whether what looks to be, and a majority believe must be, an inevitable result really is irresistibly inevitable. In the field of business ethics, a teleological approach will not only ask about strategies for profit, but the impact of decisions on people (staff and customers). Sensitivity to stakeholders and the impact of corporate decisions on culture, the local community, and the environment, are now, to many, the professional norm. ‘Should this be done?’ has more street-cred than ever. This doesn’t mean the answers are easy: it does mean ethics matter, and matter in new ways. And when the question is asked, of course, a thoughtful Board will resource themselves with classic answers to the biggest ethical dilemmas. Some will look to the utilitarian tradition of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), with its searching standard, ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’. Others will embrace a more fluid ‘consequentialist’ ethic in which good and bad actions and intentions are weighed up at every stage and justified according to their short, medium, and long-terms impacts. To others, this is all too situational and provisional in style and tone, and they demand a demonstrably normative set of ethical criteria, with the ‘end’ never uncritically justfying the ‘means’. To others, again, the good ‘ends’ of liberation and hope, justice and equality, provide all and more than is needed to hold politicians and profits, private decisions and public policy, to account. A teleological approach rightly handled puts iron in the soul of society and salt in the wounds of its would-be destroyers. If the Oxford House Transition Team can’t answer the ‘ought’ or ‘should’ question, Oxford House has no business encouraging others to think ethically about foreign policy nor presuming to say its ultimate end is ‘the common good’.

(The Business Bakery)

New lessons can be learned at every age and stage in life … if we are ready to listen and learn. When we lived in Washington DC, a President’s ‘first 100 days’ was only as significant as his ‘last 100 days’. Members of the Cabinet were encouraged to write their resignation letter – and record of achievement – on Day 1 of their tenure. I am not quite into my ‘last 100 days’, but I can see the wisdom of the Transition Team focussing on what they hope for the ‘first 100 days’ of my successor and encouraging him or her to consider their legacy from Day 1. As a branch of good management, teleology has much to commend it, as I hope you’d agree.

Professor Christopher Hancock – Director