Henry VIII and Suleiman the Magnificent were contemporaries that had dramatically different approaches to succession management.  In theory, an English king had one wife whose first-born son would succeed the king. The rulers of the Ottoman empire had harems which included several concubines who could produce heirs.

The modern day business parallels are the organization that designates one successor to its leader versus the organization that nurtures several possible successors and lets the best successor emerge.

Which works better?Portrait of Henry VIII

Henry VIII’s Succession

Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon produced no sons – divorced her.  Then second wife Anne Boleyn produced no sons – beheaded her.  Then Jane Seymour did produce a son, but died in childbirth.  And Henry’s next three wives, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr produced no children.  Further, none of Henry’s children had children. Henry was succeeded by his son Edward who was succeeded by Mary who was succeeded by Elizabeth who was the last of the Tudor monarchs.  All in, the Tudors held the crown of England from 1485 to 1603 – 118 years.


Suleiman the Magnificent’s Succession

Conversely, one of Suleiman’s eight sons succeeded him. Then that son’s son succeeded him and so on. (Note I’m not talking about the accepted practiceThe sultan of the golden age, Suleiman the Mag... of the new ruler’s killing all his brothers to head off any possible succession disputes.) All in, Suleiman’s relatives ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 – 623 years.

Harems win.

The implication for business today is that options reduce risk. Locking in on one successor reduces options and opens the organization up to the risk of choosing wrong or something happening to the chosen successor. Keeping more options open longer reduces that risk because the other possible successors are more likely to stay around and more likely to continue to be nurtured for the role.

We’ll address the personal benefits of harems in a later article – particularly now that our understanding of DNA makes male as well as female harems feasible.


Note this is a Leader’s Perspective article, which is different than my normal, regular New Leader’s Playbook articles. Those generally focus on one of the ten steps of The New Leader’s Playbook, drawing on learning from specific leaders (who are not PrimeGenesis clients). My “Leader’s Perspective articles are comments on things I see in working with clients, read about, or hear from others.