Tough acts to follow

This week has marked the untimely departure of two charismatic leaders from the helm of two very different organizations.
Canada’s New Democratic Party Jack Layton succumbed to cancer, shortly after leading its party last May to the best electoral showing in its history.
Apple‘s legendary co-founder Steve Jobs stepped down from the position of company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). His stated inability to continue to serve in that capacity, is attributed to health problems (he has also been fighting cancer over the past few years, and it seems unlikely that he may return).

It would scarcely be my place to try and express an opinion on either. Much more qualified commentaries than mine, as well as authoritative assessments of each one’s contribution to his respective field, can be found in the specialized press, and all over blogosphere.
I am going to write instead about the common, pressing need that the above two organizations suddenly face, of finding as suitable as possible replacements for two individuals who at this time seem truly irreplaceable.

Interesting analogies
Despite their obvious differences in scope, size, history and focus, I see a few remarkable similarities between the above two situations. The most striking one, is the fact that both Layton and Jobs took over as heads at the depth of crises from which it seemed impossible to recover.
When Jobs returned as CEO in 1996, the company which he had founded was arguably headed straight toward bankruptcy. Analysts typically wrote it off as a “minor player” in the personal computer market [0], i.e., that which Apple itself had invented a little over two decades earlier. Many predicted that Jobs had merely returned to oversee the demise of his own creature.
Layton became the leader of the NDP in 2002, following one of the party’s worst electoral results (November 2000), with many political commentators wondering whether the NDP had been written out of history, essentially the fate that most “socialist” parties in the western world seemed to be enduring.
The remarkable, in many respects dramatic turnarounds, and the unquestionable, quantifiable successes that both organizations have enjoyed in their recent histories, are almost unanimously characterized largely as individual achievements of these two men.
Indeed, and this is yet another analogy, in both cases there just seems to be no one around, at this time, embodying that rare blend of personal charm, intellect, genius, vision, dedication and who knows what else, that in the collective imagination makes both the NDP and Apple Computers almost one and the same with Layton and Jobs.
It is almost inevitable for many now to be thinking back to the days when they were not in charge, wondering, once again, whether there is a future for these organizations now that they are gone.

The curse of being the successor
But then, given that successors will have to be named at some point (preferably soon) [1], what are these poor souls to do, in such a situation, in order not to go down in history as the ones under whom “it all unfolded” ? How can they succeed, faced with the daunting task of making the world see that their organizations are greater than any single individual, no matter how extraordinary ? What is the secret to avert the possible fall into irrelevance, looking like “just another computer maker”, or being perceived again as the party “against everything and in favour of nothing” ?
I am sure that they will receive much wiser advice, but this is my blog, hence I am taking the liberty of telling them what I would do, if I were in their shoes (aside from the obvious “do not try to be like the person you are replacing”). And I am doing it for free, ’cause that is just the kind of guy I am.

“Riding the wave”
The risk of falling into a pattern of inaction is huge, and the reason is simple: one is inheriting a seemingly perfect device, almost capable of functioning on automatic pilot. It seems as if one is bound to screw up by doing just about anything, so why not simply sit back, do nothing, live in the shadow of popularity of the predecessors, and just reap the fruit of their success ?
I think that that is a recipe for failure. Anyone adopting such a strategy is bound to lose the respect of voters, party members, shareholders, customers, close associates. In business, as well as in politics, things may stay still for a long time, but when change takes place, it happens swiftly and suddenly. The thing is, if change has to happen, it is much better to be the one who originates it, as opposed to having to keep up with someone else’s.
I say, the new leaders should take a gamble and implement their own visions, even if it means in part breaking with the past. They ought move perhaps slowly early on, but then decisively, and without looking back — ever.
And most important of all: do not take for granted the support and consensus that you are inheriting. People are not going to buy your product forever just because you used to “think different”, nor are progressive voters going to vote for you simply because yours is the only party to the left of the centre.

It would be so much easier if it were Microsoft…
The above is true in any situation in which a successor is charged with filling big shoes, but politics and computing offer cogent examples.
Let us start with computing. Many believe that a paradigm shift for home personal computing is imminent. The traditional PC is about to exit the scene, to be be replaced by an entirely new concept (some kind of personal home computing will remain, I believe). Now, if we were talking some Redmond-based company, it would be easy. Innovation never having been one of their goals, the new CEO could just sit back, relax, wait for someone to come up with an idea, and just copy it, possibly trying to make it more cheaply.
But a company like Apple, that owes its reputation to its ability to see further ahead than its competitors, leading the change as opposed to following it, cannot afford to wait for someone else to come up with an idea, and copy that [2]. Apple needs to remain innovative.
So, the immediate challenge for its new CEO, is making sure that under his/her tenure the company be the first to propose, for example, the future model of home computing, embodied by a new device [3]. Thinner iPhones (perhaps even equipped with an actual camera — now that would be cool… just kidding), iPods with greater music storage, Apple TVs that actually do something, anything useful — none of that will keep the company afloat in the long run.

… or, the CPC
How do the above considerations apply when it comes to politics ?
It is actually not that different, aside from the fact that being a progressive leader is always more difficult than being a conservative one (all that is expected of a new conservative leader, is to sound like the previous one and look younger).
The nightmare scenario of the newly appointed leader of a progressive party, especially one that has just made an electoral breakthrough by attracting the votes of wide, new segments of the electorate, is that of overseeing the loss of support from the party’s core constituency. Typically, this occurs in response to perceived complacency, idleness on the part of the leadership, inability to remain the agent of change, to champion progressive causes, including those that may not be part of the party’s traditional background, but reflect societal evolution. As society evolves, a truly progressive party simply must remain on top of such process of transformation.
The telltale sign of a leftist party that is losing its momentum, is the concurrent emergence on the political scene of more radical formations (i.e., to its left), or of some other groups that may be seen as more effective champions of specific, pressing issues to which the party seems oblivious [4].
One thing that the newly appointed head of the NDP has to do, in order gain credibility within the party’s establishment, as well as with voters and activists (and with that, the power to stir the party in the direction wanted), is identify one, maybe two progressive issues of which to become the recognized advocate, which the previous leadership has neglected. Yes, there always are. And one or two are enough, as long as they are important. That does not mean to forget about the rest, of course — but it is crucial that the public be able to associate something concrete to the new leadership, much like for Apple.

Nobody is perfect
Not even Steve Jobs. Even he made mistakes. When he left Apple the first time, he founded NeXT, which was nowhere near as successful as Apple. And while no one questions his brilliance, it may not be amiss to remind ourselves, that even he took ideas from others [5]. Nothing wrong with that, let it be clear, but surely the next CEO can try to be equally open-minded and, when necessary, humble. Listening to customers, developers and fans is always a good idea, but maybe the next person in charge can make an extra effort in that direction, as a first step.
Obviously, Jobs would not have left, had his health not forced him out. Still, given that that is what has happened, one might wonder whether now may be the right time for a change of style, for a more down-to-earth, no-nonsense way of relating to employees and long-time buyers. And it may also be reassuring to the customer base to know that there is an actual process in place, whereby ideas are debated and strategies discussed, as opposed to everyone waiting for the next pronouncement from above.

As for Jack Layton, for all of his undisputed effectiveness at communicating, personal charm, honesty and sincerity, and without denying the obvious fact that under his tenure his party almost tripled its votes, it is not at all guaranteed that his surge in popularity would have lasted all the way to the next election. His ambition to be the next Canada’s Prime Minister was manifest, and seemed to drive much of his politics, sometimes at the expense of what his voters may have preferred [6]. Lately, it seemed as the NDP almost identified itself with its leader — in the party’s rhetoric, images, insignia, slogans, language. I am not implying that all of that necessarily came from him; it may well be that, since he was so popular, the party executives felt that they only stood to gain from putting him on display as prominently as possible [7].
I hate to write this now that Jack is not with us anymore, but if there is one thing of which a political party should stay clear, especially one that (fortunately, and hopefully for the foreseeable future) calls itself “socialist”, is anything that remotely resembles, or evokes, cult of personality. It is my hope that the NDP finds a suitable leader, soon. But I also hope to see more than just one public face, more than just one individual taken as constant ideological reference, in order to convey a stronger sense of common values and shared leadership.

Moral of the story
Honour past leaders, remember them, and hold them as examples, especially those who have left the organization in better shape than when they took over. But, even though things were good when they were in charge, a new leadership must turn over a new leaf. Any organization whose success hinges on one person, no matter how unusual, talented or gifted, has not earned the right to survive that person.

Notes

[0] This is the opinion expressed by commentator Robert X. Cringely at the end of his celebrated documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” (1996).

[1] In my opinion, the two persons currently in charge of the NDP and of Apple Computers are essentially caretakers. I predict that neither one will be at the helm two years from now.

[2] That is what Apple had become in the interim period (1984-1997) between the ousted of Steve Jobs by then CEO John Sculley and his return to the helm of the company.

[3] It suffices to do a simple web search to realize that ideas abound. For example, some I think that the future home PC will be essentially a giant iPad, with neither keyboard nor mouse, based on touch-screen technology, incorporating voice recognition and seamless integration with TVs and other home appliances.

[4] That is why leftist parties lose votes — not because they are too leftists, but because they are not leftist enough.
In Italy, that happened in the early 80s to the Communist Party, at the very apex of its parabola. I believe that it was chiefly its inability to relate effectively to the young generations, as well as to understand the importance of the environmentalist movement, that set the stage for its decline. And, while it is true that the process greatly accelerated after the passing of its popular leader Enrico Berlinguer, it is my belief that it had already begun with him at the helm. It is in those years that the Green Party, as well as smaller radical leftist parties, started gaining consensus at the expense of the communists.

[5] There are at least two examples of that, whose importance can hardly be overstated.
The first is the graphical user interface, that made the Macintosh look so revolutionary when it appeared in 1984, and for which Jobs, by his own admission, got the idea during his visit of Xerox PARC, where most of the innovative features implemented in the Mac had been developed a decade earlier (see here. In this documentary, Jobs clearly states that Xerox could have been “as big as IBM”, had its management realized what they were sitting on).
The second is the introduction of the operating system Mac OS X, which in the opinion of many is what really enabled Apple to penetrate into sectors of the market (i.e., science and engineering) from which it had been virtually absent during the 90s, and where now it is the almost undisputed leader. And, really, was Mac OS X so “innovative” ? To many of us, it was nothing but the long-awaited professional version of Linux.

[6] I have always had a lot of respect for Jack Layton. I liked how he spoke directly, clearly, to the point. I have always been impressed by his enthusiasm, and commitment to public service. He was, in my opinion, remarkably effective at promoting, in this cynical age, a very positive image of political activism, especially among young people. For that, he deserves a lot of credit, as he did a great service to the nation.
But, as an NDP sympathizer and voter, I have to admit (my readers know that already) to have felt quite frustrated with him, at times, for example when he pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s government in 2005, triggering an election which, in his mind, could have propelled him to the role of Prime Minister, but whose outcome could only conceivably be that of handing the country to the conservatives — and for a long time.
Of course, I was dead wrong when I wrote, in 2008, that the NDP had no margin for growth under his leadership. Still, being on the one hand a tough leader of the opposition, representing the desire of change expressed by his young caucus, while at the same time promoting that image of moderate, centrist statesman, was a difficult balancing act, and I am afraid that with time it would have worn him out.
Of course, this is just my opinion — we shall never know, unfortunately.

[7] I bet most people, even NDP voters, would be hard pressed mentioning names of current high rank party officials, other than Layton’s wife. Historic figures like Ed Broadbent or even Tommy Douglas are more likely to be familiar names. I wonder how many reacted with “who ?” to the announcement that Nycole Turmel would be the interim leader, when Layton stepped down last month.

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3 Responses to “Tough acts to follow”

  1. grad student Says:

    I am not an NDPer, but I was quite saddened by Jack Layton’s death. He seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. I had visions that debates and Question Period would be more balanced, substantial and polite with him at the helm of the NDP against a conservative government. But my fantasy maybe more of a reflection of my disdain for all things Liberal.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Great post

    I see the NDP’s future path being harder than Apple’s. In the latter case, the legions of creative people and the established product development processes will take them a long way. But for the NDP, legions of hard-working and locally popular NDP MPs will not be anywhere near enough. As you mentioned in footnote 7, I don’t really know any NDP MPs other than Olivia Chow and some of the Vancouver members. Some of the latter (including my own MP) are well-known and well-liked within Vancouver, but not household names at the national level. I don’t see any of them being elected leader, simply because when was the last time any party leader ever came from BC?

    • Massimo Says:

      I disagree. You may well be right, but I see it differently.
      In 2016, the conservatives will have been in power for ten years. I think people will be wanting change, and, frankly, I hardly see the Liberals as giving the NDP “a run for the money”, unless an amazing new leader materializes.
      But when it comes to computing, I have been seeing a troublesome future ahead for Apple for a while, even with Jobs at the helm. The competition that they now face is formidable, virtually in every segment of their market — and they are the only player in the field that remains a hardware company at the core. If they don’t sell hardware, they are ….ed — and an economic crisis that promises to be long and painful is not good news for them, for sure.

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