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Quitting while you are ahead

Leaders tend to hang around. They cling on to power as surely as the most Machiavellian of politicians or arrogant of sports stars.

By Stuart Crainer 08 February 2011

Leaders have a very poor track record of leaving office with good grace and their reputations intact. In politics, think of Mrs Thatcher’s departure.
48RowanOttesenConnect482x271In the sporting sphere, great performers are similarly bedevilled by a natural inclination to hang around. Muhammad Ali is the most notable example of the temptation to believe that the ravages of time can be set aside. There are countless other examples – Bjorn Borg making a comeback with a wooden racket; Sugar Ray Leonard returning to the ring; and many more.

Similarly, in the business world, leaders tend to hang around. They cling on to power as surely as the most Machiavellian of politicians or arrogant of sports stars. It is difficult to let go – especially if you are a huge success.

Look at Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. Welch was justifiably celebrated as the greatest CEO of our times. Unquestionably, he delivered phenomenal results for many years but, despite planning his departure over a number of years and labouring long and hard over his choice of successor, Welch could not resist staying on to smooth over GE’s eventually aborted takeover of Honeywell. Just another year, he promised. “GE stock going up is all me and my kids have got, so if you think I’m running out you’re wacky”, he told the press in a rather tepid justification of his decision to stay on. But, as Welch’s golf clubs gathered dust how did his successor really feel?

Of course, part of the problem is that retirement does not appear that attractive. You can be retired a long time and may grow tired of golf. Few people manage to re-invent themselves. Perhaps the greatest reinvented retiree is Jimmy Carter who has transformed himself from a failed president into a global campaigner for good. Many others struggle to get used to a life of celibacy after a diet of aphrodisiacs.

An American Management Association study shows that 25 per cent of senior executives suffer death or a serious illness within two years of retirement. Other research suggests that average life expectancy if you retire and do nothing is a frighteningly short 5.7 years.

Perhaps there is a solution to all this. Look at the huge success of the seniors golf circuit. This gives golfing legends such as Lee Trevino and Gary Player a licence to print money and to trade on their reputations. It is built on an acceptance that they were great and are now not so great but still worth seeing in the flesh. It is the best of every world.

A similar approach could be taken in the business world. Think of a management dream team: Apple’s Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Ted Turner, Michael Dell and so on. Set aside the logistical and egotistical problems of getting them in one room and you have a group of people who could change the business world for the better. If only we knew how.

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