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Long-serving CEOs, learn from the fall of Arab dictators

Aug 01, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

“Some CEOs of long tenure must have gotten a slightly queasy feeling as they watched the recent events in the Arab world. Even if they bear no resemblance at all to Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi—even if they are the most competent and benevolent of leaders—they may well feel horror at how rapidly the fortunes of a comfortable autocrat can disintegrate. They may wonder at the frightening human tendency, when the writing is on the wall, to resort to the denial, delusions, anger, and antics we’ve seen from these despots.”

ROBERT SUTTON, Harvard Business Review (June 2011)

So you’re a long-standing CEO with an enviable track record. Bob Sutton aimed a question squarely at you recently: did the serial Arab uprisings of this year make you wriggle in your well-worn seat? Just a little?

Sure, you’re no dictator – your tenure is marked by great results for the company and acclamation by the markets and your own staff. Even so, you should pay attention here. For even the best of us, the time to step down inevitably comes. The truly wise leader will ensure two things: first, that he/she is the first to recognize this, and relinquish the throne willingly; and second, that the last few months in power are handled very gracefully and magnanimously.

As Sutton points out: “How you handle yourself during your final months and weeks in power will have a big impact on how you are remembered.”

This is because of something called the “peak-end-rule”, first brought to our attention by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate: people’s memories of experiences are shaped by peak moments, whether good or bad, and by how those experiences ended.

Sutton translates thus: “Since it will be too late when you’re on the way out the door to change the peaks of your tenure, your only remaining shot at affecting how you’ll be judged by history is to create a favorable impression with your exit.”

Look at the impression created by the likes of Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Mugabe and company. These leaders may well have had good moments in their early careers, and were certainly well regarded for achievements in the past. But their place in history is now irrevocably stamped with the manner of their going. In their twilight period, they all turned ugly and turned on their own people. The “peak-end” is bad, and so, therefore, will perceptions of their entire tenure be.

Like it or not, your final years and months will colour your entire stint in the hot seat. So, if your final transit period is characterized by bragging about your achievements; undermining your successor; scheming to delay your departure; or other silliness – then that is what the world is likely to remember about you. If, on the other hand, you are generous in your praise of your team; ensure you’ve left strong systems and institutional frameworks behind you; and leave on time and in good spirit – the applause will only increase.

The last thing you want to do is to go kicking and screaming, politicking and scheming. Because the tone of your departure will become the tone of your tenure.

This applies to every single one of us. When it’s time to step down and step away, we must all hope we can do so with dignity and grace. Look at the much applauded leaders of history: a Nelson Mandela in politics; or an A.G. Lafley (of Procter and Gamble fame) in business. Both went unexpectedly early, of their own volition, and did so with style and goodwill. Their place in the leadership hall of fame is therefore assured. Contrast that with those leaders who hang on for too long, and who leave badly when they finally do. Now make your choice on what you want your legacy to be.

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