Succession planning for Sikh organisations: Are we prepared?

The most basic requirement for succession planning is unity of the sangat. The incumbent committee should be open to accept the fact that they will be replaced one day - DR GURCHARAN SINGH


Opinion | Malaysia | 17 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |


By Gurcharan Singh

It’s almost a norm that most of our Gurdwaras and organisations are led by senior Sikhs.  This seems to have been the practice and it’s acceptable as it is both useful and important.  The older generation is deemed matured and their knowledge base in Sikhi related matters also is perceived to be at a more credible level compared to the inexperienced younger generation.

From observation, it is seen that often times the taking over of the leadership helm is done in a less than careful prepared manner. It might not be true for all organisations, Gurdwaras included, but that seems to be the way things are done from long ago. As growing up youths, many of us have seen and perhaps served under the leadership of senior sewadars. Many have received the benefit of the pool of wisdom, directly or indirectly, from the senior groups. Let’s take a moment and reflect on this matter. How is succession done in our organisations and gurdwaras? How does a committee take over from the preceding one?

One good practice which we have observed is elections to office using democratic means.  Elections are done in the stipulated period according to the constitution of the said bodies.  Office bearers are elected and some appointed to do their various tasks in the service of the sangat and the panth.  Of course, this is also not without some problems and noise which arise from time to time.  There are instances where the aspiring new groups come in to take over the incumbent groups in a confrontational manner, with them garnering support for their ‘dream team’ from the members.  Sometimes the new groups fail in their attempt to convince the members that a change is needed.  Some members like stability and they do not mind being led by the same group of leaders for a long time.  In fact, some members are thankful for the leading group especially in organisations where the leadership positions are less than desirable due to a myriad of reasons.  There are instances where none of the members want to assume the leadership positions and it then almost a pleading process – with the one they are confident on being persuaded even though he or she might not be interested to come onboard.

Even though all is well as far as the democratic process is concerned, there need to be deeper thinking about this matter. Is it merely a change of guards that will ensure the smooth running of an organisation? What about the collective sense of history and institutional memory underpinned by values and norms? These and many other aspects need to be considered for good practice and to ensure that the leadership group does more than just operational function of the organisation.

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Let’s take a moment again to reflect. Have we seen or experienced succession planning in our gurdwaras and organisations? There might be some exception cases but more often than not, succession planning is not evident.  But again, is it necessary to have succession planning when we have groups taking over each other in the leadership role?  Is it not adequate enough to have a group taking over the predecessors in a smooth election process?  These are some of the questions which beg to be reflected and acted upon for a better future of our organisations, hopefully.

What is succession planning?  William Rothwell (1994) described succession planning as “a systematic effort designed to ensure the continued effective performance of an organization…by making provision for the development and replacement of key people over time.”  So, basically it means preparing the next group of people to take over the leadership when the time comes for the reins to be passed on.  It is strategic process of determining the critical roles, identifying possible successors and providing them the appropriate skills and experiences for the roles.  It involves transfer of knowledge, skills and allowing wisdom to grow through building capabilities.


Let’s go back in time to our gurus’ era.  Was there succession planning?  It’s really interesting to note that the transition of the embodiment of divine light through our gurus happened through succession, save for the transition from Guru Harkishen Ji to Guru Tegh Bahadur ji due to the circumstances of that time and event.  The Gurus passed on the guruship to the successive Gurus while still being alive.  This perhaps gives us a strong message about succession planning and how Sikhi flourished from one guru to the other.  The passing on was not done in haste or unplanned even though one may argue that guruship remained in the same family beyond the fourth guru sahib.  Nonetheless, the passing on of the divine light from the first guru to the second and then the third was done beyond the family circle.  The gurus prepared their successors and got them ready to take the helm.  Guruship was then handed over when the time was right, by which time the successor was deemed well prepared.

Fast forward to our era now, we have to assess how much of this succession planning is being done in our settings.  We obviously have the youth organisations or groups which are active at some areas and this is a ready platform to be developed further to take over the mainstream leaders when the time comes, albeit in that particular contexts. But what about other organisations and gurdwaras where the youths are not engaged and the opportunity to develop them for succession passes us by?


Succession planning typically goes through a few stages. It starts with mapping of the leadership roles and defining the parameters of the positions.  This is when the identifying criteria is set so that the right youths could be identified according to skills, capabilities, qualification, interest and so forth.  Sometimes this will be a difficult stage as the youths might not have been demonstrating the criteria as they might not have been given the platform for involvement.  So, the effort will then have to be steered into preparing some activities or roles for the youths to play so that identifying efforts could ensue.  For those who have active youth groups already in place, they can straight away move into identifying those who are suitable. This group will then be known as the talent pool.

The second stage is development of the talent pool. This is where the involvement is more structured and support is given. The talents are now identified more specifically and their individual strength is mapped to the various portfolios that are present in the incumbent working committee. There might be someone inclined to sewa, someone inclined to education, welfare, prayer programmes and so forth. The leadership committee could come up with the formation of a shadow committee which is akin to a replication of the working committee. This shadow committee could be trained to understand the mechanism of operations and asked to come up with suggestions for the consideration of the main committee. If the suggested programmes are viable, the working committee embarks on implementing the same with this shadow committee being active in assisting. Decisions are still made by the main committee but the tasks can be passed down with careful supervision. The development of this pool also rests on applying the right amount of coaching, mentoring and training.

The third stage is when the members of the shadow committee are gradually incorporated or promoted to the main committee. It need not be a total change from the incumbent committee to the new with the whole group changing. In fact that might pose a set of other problems as well. The younger successors are taken in gradually as the need arises. This will also ensure a good mix of old faces with new ones in the main committee. This will go on until all the members of the shadow committee eventually taking over the main committee.

While the succession pool is being developed from one stage to the other, the process of identifying does not stop. In fact all the processes will keep going on as there will be a continuity of succession planning with yet a younger generation being roped in. This will set in a practice which should become a norm in that organisation.

Of course what is presented here is a simplified method of succession planning for the sake of discussion and one can never deny the challenges that might be faced throughout this whole exercise. Prevailing mindsets might pose the greatest challenge and the will to do this will be another big one. The most basic requirement for succession planning is unity of the sangat. The incumbent committee should be open to accept the fact that they will be replaced one day. Rather than letting the process take place in a haphazard and sometimes adhoc or even confrontational manner, wouldn’t it be good if a bit of extra effort could be exerted to pave the way for their own future generation to take over in a smoother transition? Unity amongst members is paramount in ensuring the success of such an effort. There might be some issues or squabbles that tend to bring in perceived disunity amongst the members of sangat but it will be the sole wisdom of the sangat to decide whether they want to allow such issues to divide them or stay committed to Ekta or at least co-exist with the embrace of the principle of agreeing to disagree at times.

The practice of succession planning might have been practiced by many all along but it might not have been done a structured way. Of course the identification of the right people for the right task would have been going on but a little planning and formalising of the process might be beneficial. The succession planning initiative will also allow youths to be more involved in their gurdwaras and find coming to gurdrawa more fulfilling as they will then get an opportunity to practice Sikhi as much as having a faith in it.

[Gurcharan Singh Bishen Singh, EdD, is the Programme Director MEd / Senior Lecturer at Open University Malaysia. He is an educationist who feels strongly the need to unify Sikh organisations in Malaysia.


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