Leadership succession: a discourse analysis of governance dialectics in two nonprofit organizations



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Texas A&M University


Nonprofit organizations across the country are faced with a leadership crisis due to unprecedented demographic changes and challenges. The en masse retirement of the baby boomers leaves leadership positions in nonprofit organizations vacant and vulnerable. This study uses discourse analysis and dialectical theory to compare and contrast the leadership succession processes in two Texas-based nonprofit organizations. Both organizations have comparable missions, religious backgrounds, and annual budgets. In addition, the two organizations share similar structures in terms of board of directors, board chair, and executive director (ED) dynamics. This research is a descriptive comparative case study. The specific purpose of this study is to examine how various board members, including the board chair and the incumbent ED, construct the leadership succession process through their discursive interactions and strategies. This study demonstrates that leadership succession in nonprofits is a convoluted process enacted discursively by conflicting or collaborating key organizational actors huddled around various leadership nuclei. These nuclei include, in various combinations, the EDs, board chairs, vice-chairs, and even spouses of some of these actors. The leadership nuclei morph over time, based on the management of dialectical tensions experienced across four stages in the succession process: presuccession, during succession A and B, and post-succession. This research contributes to the larger body of leadership succession knowledge in multiple ways. First, this study reveals that leadership is an amorphous and dynamic concept contested among organizational actors across time. Second, the study highlights the architectonic role of discourse in the leadership succession process. The succession process is enacted through the key organizational actors' discursive exchanges. Third, this research points to three types of dialectical tensions underlying the actors' discursive interactions: individual-centered dialectics ("staying/leaving"), relation-centered dialectics ("blaming/absolving," "freedom/control," and "cooperation/competition"), and organization-centered dialectics ("change/stability"). Next, this study demonstrates that organizational or individual crisis prompts the succession process, and that change, conflict, goals, and deadlines grow out of the succession process and not the other way around. Finally, this study contributes specifically to the research area of small nonprofit organizations. There is a paucity of research examining the succession process in small nonprofits, and this study addresses this need.