Stop searching for heroes.

Heroic leadership is a sign of failure

Both Henry Ford and his eponymous motor company were nearing the peak of their powers when, in 1922, he wrote: "The remains of the old must be decently laid away; the path of the new prepared. That is the difference between Revolution and Progress." He is by no means the only person who has spectacularly failed to heed his own sound advice.

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a family friend made the naïve mistake of claiming Leicester City’s rise, from football’s second tier in 2015 to winning the Premiership title in 2016, was the greatest sporting achievement of all time. He was, of course, frogmarched to the sofa, to be re-educated with Jonny Owen’s masterpiece documentary, “I Believe in Miracles”.

Brilliantly edited to a phenomenal soundtrack, the film is an unashamed love letter to Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest team of the late 1970’s, who not only achieved the same feat as Leicester, but went on to become the Champions of Europe for two seasons in a row. Reluctantly conceding the point, our friend asked the obvious, albeit rather painful question: “So what happened? Where did it all go wrong?”

The tabloid answer is this: Clough revolutionised management and transformed the team at Forest. But once his right-hand man, Peter Taylor had left, the combination of Clough’s ego and alcoholism, and others’ blind deference, took Forest out of contention, and ultimately, out of the Premiership. The truth is more complex. Under Clough alone, Forest continued to win various cups for much of the next decade, narrowly missing a treble, and were finally relegated in Clough’s retirement year. The fact is, it was the twelve different managers in the ensuing thirteen years, that saw the club slide to football’s third division, before eventually settling into mid-second-tier obscurity.

The lesson from the Forest story is a lesson of succession – a lesson that continues to be ignored in business and politics almost as frequently as in football. Despite all the empirical evidence, football clubs, political parties, and indeed, a great many family and entrepreneurial businesses, remain unflinchingly loyal to the heroic leader philosophy. Great managers are bought, not made; support is unwavering until they ultimately fail, then it’s off to the market for a new one.

Heroic leaders are an impossibly tough act to follow – by their very nature, they invariably make it that way. Succession planning is anathema, the “path of the new” is never prepared, and thus, once they’re gone, the organisation lurches from one revolution to the next.

Considering the quote above, it’s ironic that Ford is an iconic example of the heroic leader philosophy killing the prospect of smooth succession. In 1915, Henry Ford’s General Counsel and right-hand man, James Couzens, quit because Ford continually refused to listen to his advice. Ford made his son, Edsel, President of the company in 1919, but constantly countermanded his decisions, even rehiring men that Edsel had fired. During the 1920’s, Ford’s market shared slumped badly, yet even as President, Edsel had to work clandestinely to prevent his autocratic father from pulling the plug on the Model A, the car that saved the company’s fortunes when it finally hit the market in 1927.

Throughout his life, Henry Ford drove away competing voices including top talent, most notably Bill Knudsen in 1931, who went on to lead Chevrolet to dominance and was pivotal in the massive industrialisation of the US during World War II. When Edsel died in 1943, the elderly Henry stepped back in as CEO as there was nobody else left whom he would trust to run the show. Henry’s grandson and successor after his death, Henry Ford II did the same during his 34 years at the helm, most notably firing marketing genius Lee Iacocca when his popularity became a threat. Under his tenure, Ford’s performance was a wild rollercoaster, and his greatest legacy was the caustic culture and political infighting, seeded by his grandfather and nurtured under his own heroic-leadership.

However enlightened and sophisticated we are, we all have a tendency to look for heroes in challenging times. It’s no coincidence that the DC superheroes, Superman, Batman and Wonderwoman, were all born in the great Depression of the 1930s and were joined by a host of Marvel ones in the aftermath of World War II. Nor is it a surprise they’ve arisen once again to dominate box offices since the 2008 financial crash.

There are times in business when a revolution is required, when fundamental transformation is the only route to survival. And sometimes there’s a need to buy in a hero to make that transformation happen. But revolutions aren’t a prize to be sought. They are the price of failure: failure to recognise a change in the air; failure to realize the need to develop new leaders and new capabilities; failure to hand over the reins, to prepare the path for the new before the demise of the old.

How are you preparing your own succession? How much are you already handing over the reins? What are you doing right now to prevent the need for a future revolution in your business?