The Course of Reason

The Best Leadership Advice I Ever Got: How to be successful at succession

November 4, 2012

This post is especially aimed at leaders of newly started student groups, or groups that have struggled to continue on year after year. Scroll down for my do's and don'ts of creating a succession plan for your group! The best advice I ever got as a budding student leader was from my friend Susan O'Banion, at the 2008 CFI Student Leadership Conference. She told me that if I accomplished one thing as president of the Secular Alliance of IU (SAIU, a group which I'd co-founded earlier that year), it should be to make sure there's a new president when I graduate.

At first, I shrugged off her advice. I had just started a student group! I wanted to hold events, have speakers, get more members involved...I didn't need to worry about finding a replacement for myself.

But she kept repeating it, and more and more, her words started to stick. Here at CFI On Campus, we see too many campus groups come and go, year after year. More often than not, an inspired individual starts a group, runs all the meetings, organizes all the events, and suddenly graduates, leaving the skeletal remains of a once-vibrant organization behind.

The advice is easy—don't let your group die! Keep it going! But making that happen is the hard part, something I struggled with in the years leading up to my graduation. There were definitely times when I thought it wasn't going to happen, and I'm still not sure I hold the secret to success.

However, four years later, SAIU is still going strong. (And it fills me with delight to see this!) I made many, many mistakes in my day, in the way I approached leadership—but I also did a few things that worked, and I'd like to share those for other leaders.

Here they are, my do's and don'ts.


  1. Target freshmen. They're young, they're wily, but they're the ones who will be around for awhile when you're gone. Make them feel welcome! If new students feel invested in the group and its existence, it will go a long way toward building a culture that will be missed if no one steps up to the plate.
  2. Identify and nurture potential leaders. If you can, start early. (Read: NOW.) Make these people your friends. Walk them down to the room reservation office (at our school, it was almost impossible to find), and sit with them while they sign up for campus space. Show them how to create a Facebook event and how to post to the group's website. Hold their hands. 
  3. Hold elections a few weeks before the end of the year. Our affiliate groups aren't all necessarily democratic, but most are. However they're chosen, give new leaders a chance to take the reins while you are still around. Hang back and let them lead. Defer to them when people ask you questions, and if they aren't successful, be patient. Every new leader is going to make mistakes. (Didn't you?)
  4. Document everything. One of our members made a giant list of everything we had ever done as a group. At the time, I didn't see the point, but now I see that it's an invaluable resource. Anytime you have a good meeting topic, or show a well-regarded film, reflect on why it was successful and write that shit down. (Even better: blog about it on your group website so other students and leaders can learn from the experience!)
  5. High hopes, low expectations. This is my rule for just about everything in life, and it works for groups, too. If all the group does is hold monthly meetings for a year, don't sweat it. It exists! 
  6. Encourage them to attend conferences. The CFI Student Leadership conference was the single most inspirational experience I had as a secular group leader. The SSA also has a fantastic yearly leadership conference. Other nontheist and secular organizations have regional and national conferences throughout the year, and often offer student rates. (If you're ambitious, you could even work with us to help organize a regional student conference.)
  7. Share contacts. Remind them that they're not alone. Give them our email, If you can, introduce them to Debbie Goddard and myself. Introduce them to local leaders or community members who might offer assistance. (Reba Wooden, executive director at CFI Indy, was especially helpful to us-if you haven't yet, find your local CFI branch.) Share the SSA connections you've made. Relay the group's culture and history, as you see it, but try to embrace the change that will inevitably come with new leadership.
  8. Give your new leader the same advice. Pass down this mantra to future leaders: Your most important job is to make sure your group exists after you're gone.


  1. Alienate people. This is painstakingly obvious, but it can be really difficult. People are going to frustrate you. They're going to let you down. They're going to not show up to things, and if you're passionate about your group, that'll probably piss you off. Try to resist the urge to scold them or make them feel guilty-that won't help create future leaders.
  2. Eschew social activities. I was guilty of this. When I started my group, it was to make a difference, not to sit around eating waffles. I actually found myself frustrated at all the social activities people wanted to do. I was an activist, goddammit! But looking back, these activities are a big part of why the group is still around-so I'm glad our members ignored my eye-rolling and insisted on making the group more about friendship and camaraderie than simply getting things done.
  3. Disappear. Make yourself available to answer questions and offer advice, through email, Facebook, Twitter, or by phone.

I'm not an expert, and I'm still learning to be a successful leader. I know a lot of groups have lasted longer than my own, so let me know in the comments—what worked well for you? What didn't?


About the Author: Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser's photo

Sarah Kaiser is a field organizer for CFI On Campus. Prior to her work at CFI, she got her start in the freethought movement as the co-founder and president of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, where she helped organize a nationally recognized atheist bus ad campaign and large campus speaking events. As an atheist, a feminist, and a small part of the universe's way of understanding itself, she is thrilled at the chance to help advance CFI's mission. On Twitter: @sarahebkaiser.




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