The irreplaceable myth.

January 8, 2009

My winter break during my first year at Darden was exceptionally busy. I travelled to the bay area for a job trek (essentially checking out jobs in Silicon Valley), home to Maryland for Christmas, off to Vegas for New Years, and then back to Charlottesville to cram for internship interviews.

This year I took the opposite extreme. I went home, visited family and friends, but I didn’t travel anywhere exotic or crazy. I had a pleasant and surprisingly fun New Years holiday with my parents. I did take a flight to Florida to visit my father and stepmother, and I picked up Newsweek’s annual most powerful people issue to read on the plane.

In that issue, one of the most powerful people mentioned was Steve Jobs, the charismatic leader of Apple, Inc., who has led the company from the brink of economic ruin in 1996 to the forefront of technology leadership and an unprecedented financial success. The subtitle referred to Jobs’ irreplaceable status in the eyes of pundits and shareholders alike, increasingly in focus as his health has recently been called into question. This reference led to some level of reflection on my part. I had recently received an email from one of my old superiors, who humbled me with warm words referring to my service in Iraq in 2006. He charecterized my efforts as vital and therefore irreplaceable, and admitted for the first time that this affected his choice of my assignments, obstenstibly keeping me from riskier missions. Despite the degree of this compliment and the warm shudder it sent through me, especially in light of far more accomplished and vital performers in the art of war at that time who spent countless hours in harm’s way, I found myself somewhat chagrined.

Part of my military bias is the sense that no one is irreplaceable, that no personality is so dominant and no one’s efforts or even leadership so important that we should consider that person irreplaceable. Jobs is a sure leader, a man who embodies the very spirit of the company he built, then saved and built again. Apple, Inc. is Steve Jobs. But he is no demigod. Jobs is all too mortal, but there is absolutely no reason that Apple, Inc. must be congruent to that mortality. Companies are certainly mortal, and the current recession certainly has borne this truth out. But the death of companies and organizations in general need not follow that of their leaders.

Succession planning is a critical role of any leader. The ageless role of the squire, the apprentice, the protege, even the first-born son has served as the greatest indicator of humankind’s recognition of this fact. The folly of ignoring this prudence can be shocking in retrospect. Benjamin Franklin died shortly after writing his historical condemnation of slavery, more than 70 years before abolition. The nation’s loss of his vision and leadership was not reconciled by subsequent inherited firm resolution at the national hero level and the immoral act of slavery was hence endured by an agitated nation for decades more before the Civil War nearly tore the union to shreds just shy of its centennial.

Succession planning is not only critical due to simple mortality, but also the turbulent times that often require a change in leadership for myriad other professional and personal reasons. Someone must be ready to step in and take over at a moment’s notice, and the very definition of poor leadership is that which builds an organization of dependency.

No one is irreplaceable… this status is reserved only for ideals, principals, and the best of our hearts. Any other conclusion is narcissistic, myopic, and, perhaps… delusionary.

The New Year of 2009, besides bringing such sober reflection, also brings an opportunity for resolutions. This year, it’s a return to a suitable level of fitness. I took off working out for a few weeks. It was interesting how much it bothered me at first, and scary how easy it later became to just forget it. I feel like I quickly degraded to frightenlingly bad shape. While in Florida, I jogged while taking one of the family dogs on a run, and was quickly panting and even dizzy. Now, I’m working out twice a day (most days) and hating/loving it. But I already feel healthier. If I make it to November before breaking down on this one like I did last year, I think things will work out just fine.

The final note of this post is regarding the upcoming first year recruiting process. Last year, I noted with dismay that many (though certainly not all) second year students were unavailable to assist first year students during the first week of classes at Darden. First year students are now ramping up their internship interview preparation, and the current job market is competitive enough to be scary for anyone, regardless of how well prepared or credentialed.  The first week of classes for second year students is actually not regular, 6-week courses, but rather is a week of intense classes that run up to 10 hours a day. These courses, called J-week classes, are a great opportunity to try out something different or address a particular weakness while covering enough credits to lighten the coursework in another quarter. For example, I’m taking a class called “Ethics through Theater”, which I have found to be fantastic. We are actually writing, directing, and acting in plays… all in a single, intense week. Despite the intense classwork, I resolved not to repeat my experiences from last year and make myself available to help first year students with their interview preparation. I have found them very grateful and genuinely interested in feedback and advice, which is the most meaningful response I could receive. I’m proud of my classmates that have also jumped in to help our first year class, and I’m confident that companies and firms will face a very well prepared first year class and a number of difficult decisions when they show up on grounds in a few weeks.

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One Response to “The irreplaceable myth.”

  1. David said

    I think I will have to ride the fence on this one. While I can, possibly, agree that any individual is replaceable, I can only do so in the sense that that someone else could be brought in to perform the same functions.

    I think it makes it more real if instead of Jobs we consider a spouse. If a spouse were to leave could you find somebody that could perform the same functions (chores, jobs, etc.)? Yes, you could. Could you find somebody that would make you feel the same way. Less likely. More important – if they could be the same or better in both functions and feelings, how long will it take to find them and how many resources to do it?

    Going back to Jobs. Is there somebody who can DO what he does. Sure. Will that person have the same following, the same crazed fan base, the same magic about them as Jobs does? If yes, how long will it take to find them? Long enough that it could derail the company in such a competitive and cutting edge industry.

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