How do we know if someone was a great leader? One key is to take a hard look at their final act of leadership before they let go of the reins. Too many would-be leaders see succession in a distorted light that invalidates any good work they may have done. If we want to be seen as “one of the good ones” here’s how to get the focus right.
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Beijing, China, 2008. The Olympics. Round one, heat one of the men’s 400-meter relay.
The track is wet from rain, and the sprinters are nervous as they get into the starting blocks, batons in hand. The gun goes off.
For the first three legs of the race, everything goes well for Team U.S.A. Charging around the final curve, Dervis Patton has moved into the lead just ahead of the runner from Trinidad and Tobago. One final handoff of the baton and a sprint for the line was all that remained.
In the transition zone, Tyson Gay began to run, his left hand outstretched behind, ready to receive the baton. Later he said that during the handoff he felt the baton hit his hand, but when he tried to close his fingers around it, “there was nothing.”
In one terrible, heart-breaking instant, the baton fell to the ground. Team U.S.A. failed to finish the race. For the first time since 1912, the U.S. men’s 400-meter relay team would not go on to compete in the finals.
As a metaphor for leadership transition, there are stunning parallels between this incident and how great leaders treat this final act of leadership.
The Not So Great
In his classic work Good to Great, Jim Collins rigorously identified the very few companies from the Fortune 500 that met his high standard for greatness, including long-term sustained growth.
To figure out what made these companies great, he compared them with similar but less successful companies. In the process he made a revealing discovery about leadership.
In the poorer performing companies, he found that the leaders, “concerned more with their reputation for personal greatness, often failed to set the company up for success in the next generation.” In fact, in three quarters of them he found executives who had deliberately set their successors up for failure.
It’s evident that these executives seemed to think that if the organization thrived while they were in charge, and then immediately started to struggle after they left, it was clear testament to their ability as leaders. The greater the fall, the better they think they look. Obviously their inspired leadership was the only thing holding everything together.
But that’s short-sighted and backwards.
Failing the Team
In the relay race, it doesn’t matter how fast the third runner sprints. If he botches the hand-off, the team still loses. He can boast all he wants about his incredible speed, but it’s self-seving and pointless. He failed the team.
Leaders who truly care about their organization and the people within it do not set them up to fail the moment they walk away. They bend over backwards to ensure that the transition happens smoothly, thoroughly, and cleanly, with the least disruption to their teammates or their mission.
In my military career, one clear measure of good leadership was the ability of a unit to function effectively no matter what happened to it, including the sudden or unexpected loss of its leader. This point of view extended to planned transitions as well.
If the incoming leader floundered in his first 60 days, it was not seen as a strike against him so much as an indictment of the leader who was just there. Like the runners on the relay team, the sprinter with the baton has the best view and the most control over what is happening in the transition. If things go awry, he’s the one to focus on to figure out what the problem was.
If we want to be seen as great leaders, we need to be preparing our organizations for the day when we are no longer in charge. We need to identify and train our Seconds to be ready to step up, prepare our teammates for greater and more complex tasks, and build systems that will function effectively even when we’re not there to pull the levers.
Our final act of leadership is to make sure that the team continues to thrive after we are gone.
Final Act of Leadership – The Takeaway
I watched that video of the dropped baton several times. At first, I just focused on the slow motion close-up of the U.S. team’s fumble. But then I noticed that the team from Nigeria in the lane to their left dropped their baton as well. Messing up the transition is far too common.
But most telling of all, in the opposite lane, the team in red from Trinidad and Tobago did things differently. The runner with the baton uses both arms to grab the hand of the final runner and place the baton securely in it.
In this most critical of moments in the race, they wanted to be absolutely certain they had a smooth transition. They did, and Trinidad went on to win.
If we would be seen as great leaders, if we want our team to win, our final act of leadership is clear: don’t drop the baton.