Charles De Gaulle once famously remarked that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men”. The point he was making is that no-one is indispensable. The world, a country, a company or whatever goes on when its leader disappears.
There are, of course, people who leave indelible marks behind them, but at some point they all disappear and someone else steps up to the plate. They may be a shadow of the former leader, or maybe a great deal better. The only way to find out is to see them in action.
The question of succession is a difficult one, although democracy has taken care of that in terms of government. A leader departs when the people no longer want him. But in companies, it is more complicated. There are, for example, family businesses in which one generation feels obliged to leave the firm to the next generation, even if they are not suited to the job. As a result, the business suffers.
The management guru Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” defined business leaders in different ways: Level 4 leaders, he said, had the vision of what they wanted to achieve and got on and did it, using the labour of others. If the company fails when they leave, such men often do not care, because that reflects well on their ability.
Collins’s Level 5 leaders are more humble, but also understand that one can build bigger and better businesses if one accepts one’s limitations and rather than concentrating on your own ideas, looks around to find the best brains to create a better longterm future for the company. Level 5 leaders are looking beyond their own lifetimes.
Taking on outsiders is not always easy, particularly in industries where experience is very specific. Newcomers may be very bright and may even be right when they think that things should change, but it is often the changers who get changed, rather than the system.
Picking a winner to run a racing championship is not easy. Leaving the business to someone who was subordinate to the old leader may not be the smartest thing to do because if they were exceptional they would have become the leader themselves. Racing people do not generally wait in queues, like bureaucrats. Old leaders have unwanted baggage which make it tough for them to step up and demand respect from those who used to be equals. On the other hand, newcomers will make mistakes and upset people, which is why a familiar face is sometimes deemed to be better than a smart outsider.
It is worth noting that over in the United States, IndyCar looks like it is going through this at the moment. CEO Randy Bernard came into motor racing from a very successful background in bull-riding. He joined IndyCar on a five-year contract in 2010 and has been involved in trying to give the series new energy and vigour. Unfortunately for Bernard, some are now beginning to push back against him and are campaigning to have him removed. Bernard has confirmed that one team owner is calling others, trying to get him fired.
No-one in the Formula 1 business gives a toss whether Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, recently named chairman of the Formula One group, is an expert in marketing food. They want to know if he can deal with motor racing people and being on a string of fancy boards does not prove anything. He may turn out to be an inspired choice, who wins the confidence of all and sundry. He may not.
One can argue that there will never be another Bernie Ecclestone, and I would agree with that. Bernie is a man with a remarkable set of skills. But there will come a day when the Formula One group will get another CEO. Be that tomorrow, or in 10 years from now. The big question is not really where to find someone as exceptional as Bernie, but rather whether the organisation will change. The future leader may not need the same skills as Bernie.
There is no doubt that he will need to be good in a boardroom; and good in front of cameras. But perhaps he will also need to be happy to let others run the divisions of the corporation, leaving him to make sure things are running smoothly, and give him the chance to think strategically about where the business is going next – and how to make that happen.
One way or the other, it will be interesting to watch.