Tall Poppy, Zero Sum Game and Succession Planning

Why does succession planning fail in some organisations? There could be many reasons. But I found two factors play significant role in failure.

They are Tall Poppy syndrome and Zero Sum Game mind-set.

Lucius Tarquinius was king of Rome,  whose his son Sextus Tarquinius captured city of Gabii. After capturing the city Sextus sent a messenger to Lucius, to seek his advice on what to do next. Lucius met messenger in garden, he took stick and moved it across the garden, and this action resulted in cutting off heads of tallest of poppies in the garden. He did not give any verbal or written message to messenger. The messenger told Sextus what he saw. Sextus understood the message and ordered his soldiers to kill all the eminent citizens of Gabii, so that he will not face any opposition in conquered city.

king poppy

This “Tall Poppy Syndrome” exists in many organisations. Where peers and superiors ensure that anyone who is very talented or rising very fast is “cut to size”, to that he/she is no longer threat to them. This syndrome can lead to exodus of talent from organisation, as talented people feel unwanted in organisation.

tall poppy

In game theory there are zero sum games. A zero sum game is a situation in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. An example of this is game of “matching pennies”.

In this game there are 2 players, say A and B.  They have to simultaneously placing a coin on the table; the payoff depends on whether the sides of coin match or not. If both are heads or tails, Player A wins and keeps Player B’s coin; if they do not match, Player B wins and keeps Player A’s coin. The payoff matrix is shown below. Being zero sum game, one’s gain is other’s loss.


This zero sum game mind can be extended to organisations. Power is confined to few at top, any addition to this group, results in decline of power of others, since size of power pie is fixed. So entry of new members to privileged club is discouraged. At times it may take form of refusal of CXO to retire (i.e. seek extension or come back as consultant) or refusal to share power with/groom successor.

succession planning

The CEO and board members should find out if “Tall poppy syndrome” and “Zero sum game” mind-sets exist in leadership band, its existence can derail best of succession planning initiatives.



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