Thursday, September 08, 2011

Uneasy lies the head.

Last month, a continent apart in both geographical and ideological terms, two organizations lost their leaders. Steve Jobs announced his resignation as CEO of Apple Computer – that one resonated everywhere – and Jack Layton, only recently anointed Canada’s social conscience incarnate, passed away leaving his party and a few million pro tem “ich bin ein socialist” Canadians bereft. The air was thick with punditry. And no theme received a rounder thrashing than that of succession: Who could ever truly pull the swords from those stones?

The question says a lot about leadership, at least in these post-post-modern times. We all like to think of great organizations as giant collaborations, well-intended creative peers collegially pulling together, sharing ideas and lifting each other ever higher in a cuddly utopian festival of self-actualization. And we like to think of leaders as managers, facilitators, coaches, motivators and enablers whose responsibility is to make that happen while making the numbers. But, truthfully, this is just a myth we perpetuate to keep everbody happy in the Matrix. It’s not really how most effective organizations work, most days. Most days, they are simply led. There’s an exchange between worker and leader that offers cooperation for vision, and assumes the person who makes the most money should be held to the highest standard. It’s not very fashionable to say so, but we all expect that the boss should be the best among us. In these moments, when we’re trying to figure out how to fill that void, it’s suddenly all so clear. You don’t hear employees and stakeholders clamoring to replace their fallen leader with a politburo. Not even the socialist ones. They want a warrior king.

A couple of posts back, I wrote, “branding and leadership are inseparable quantities in the modern corporation.” I really believe, especially in consumer facing organizations, that no leader can ever be above his or her brand, and no brand can ever be greater than the moral standard set by its leader. It’s not a coincidence that the best brands are the ones with the most vexing succession problems, while the weakest ones seem to be a revolving door for self-styled professional managers. We wring our hands over the loss of arrogant ideologues, while I doubt anyone is going to lose much sleep over the loss of, say, Carol Bartz. “Growth by 2012” just doesn’t have same ring to it as “love is better than anger” or “1984 won’t be like 1984.”

When interviewed Steve Wozniak about his co-founder’s resignation the day it happened, a reporter asked him what books Jobs liked to read when the two of them were imagining that enterprise in the 1970s. The only title Woz could remember was Atlas Shrugged. Great leaders with great brands are like that. Ideologues. Arrogant. Deaf to compromise. Pains in the ass. Irreplaceable. It turns out that leadership is more Shakespearean than Skinnerian, more myth than science. And great brands, often, in the end, might simply be the collateral effect of that, a signal to the rest of us that a company we might do business with is the real thing. That such reigns end is just the price we pay for that inestimable value.

Saying goodbye to a genuine leader is tough business, whether they were the greatest CEO in capitalist history, or a stumping lefty dreamer. But the harder job comes after. Because the job of leadership is too important to squander on merely protecting somebody’s legacy. As difficult as it is to face, the best we can hope for is more than that. The best we can hope for are new leaders, so good, so authentic, so burning with hope that we’re allowed to forget the predecessors upon whose shoulders they stand. The late Ted Rogers, a formidable leader himself, would always end his company addresses with the line, “The best is yet to come.” The day that stops being true for an organization, its story is over. A sword in a stone is just a monument, and monuments are only about what’s been lost.

There’s never going to be much profit in that. Or, for that matter, much future.

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