Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What legacy says about leadership

A friend of mine was recently telling me about a company he recently left after a 10-year tenure. He had the privilege to work for the CEO for the last half of his time there, and is still inspired by that CEO's clarity about the business and his ability to inspire everyone at the company. The CEO recently retired - a move that was a long-time coming. And the company is in turmoil as a result of the leadership vacuum created in the wake of the CEO's departure. All of the executives are talking about leaving; without the CEO they feel lost.

My friend reveres that CEO as the greatest leader he has ever worked with. "See look what he built - the company can't survive if he's gone! That's the mark of a great leader," he said to me. I'm not so sure. After my recent conversation, I am left wondering what it says about a leader if their company's success is driven by their presence. We all want to be wanted, and needed, and all want to feel that special sense that comes with being irreplaceable. Being irreplaceable creates a lot of burden, and ultimately negatively effects the lives of the people who work for that CEO in a profound way.

At the very least, cultivating that idea of being irreplaceable is irresponsible. The truth is that none of us will live forever, no matter how much we exercise, or how well we eat, or how often we monitor our health. And with job switching being so commonplace in today's economy, on average each of us will change jobs almost 10 times in our lifetime. If a company falls apart due to one person's departure, it means that leader didn't create an active succession plan, and maybe the vision he or she inspired was not sustainable, and therefore not successful in the long-term.

I think about my recent trip out to LA to visit with Disney. Walt Disney died in 1967, a very young man, from lung cancer. From the time of his diagnosis, he had a year to live. And so much more he wanted to do. Even as he was building a company on imagination and achieving the impossible, a company that bore his name, he was also building something much more valuable - a company that could live on without him because of the brilliant and creative people he had the foresight to surround himself with. He passed the torch to a very capable group of people, who brought in even more capable people, to allow for continued growth decades later. To me, leaving a legacy that lasts in your absence if the greatest mark of successful leadership.

The photo above can be found at http://darkstar.holtz.com/hct/ee/images/uploads/hk-ceo.jpg

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