Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jeffrey Pfeffer for Harvard Business Review‘s “The Conversation” series. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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Recently when Cathleen Black resigned after just three months as New York City’s schools Chancellor, many influential New Yorkers decided that the way to analyze the event was as evidence of their mayor’s stumbling.
That’s quite a turn of interpretation for a man who, for several years, seemed to be able to do no wrong. Not that long ago, Michael Bloomberg was being talked about widely as a post-partisan presidential possibility. The fact that the bloom is now off the rose, and constituents are said to be tiring of him, offers an important lesson in power for all of us.
Let’s start by observing the obvious: that anyone who wields great power is bound to rub some people the wrong way, and those disaffected people accumulate over time. They also tend to have longer memories. As Dan Julius, a senior academic administrator now in the University of Alaska system told me years ago, “the things you did that upset people and create enmity live on much longer than what you did that people liked and created supporters.” Thus, the goodwill Bloomberg earned during the successful tenure of former schools chancellor Joel Klein, and for the many things he has done to make New York more economically vibrant and livable, is rapidly degrading. People are already forgetting how he took on budget problems inherited from his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, and helped the city successfully live within its means. Accomplishments seem to have a shorter half-life — at least in people’s memories — than animosities.
This is one reason that leaders need to be “repotted” after a long tenure, believed Ernie Arbuckle, the Stanford Business School dean who did much to put the school on its successful trajectory. He noted that it becomes harder to get things done as resentments build and people get tired of you. Arbuckle stayed as dean for 10 years, then left to become chairman of the board of Wells Fargo for ten years, and after that, chairman of Saga Foods, also for ten years. (It will not surprise you to hear that he thought the right moment to “repot” was after ten years.) But he didn’t see it as only a problem of perception. He also thought that, after a while in a given position, one’s ability to see new challenges and opportunities clearly diminishes.
The problem is that most people, having attained a position of power, are reluctant to leave it and venture into new territory. Often, having racked up accomplishments and seen them celebrated, they are fired up by the possibility that, with a little more time, they could do more. In some cases, they cling to office because their age suggests they will not go on to scale any greater heights. Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld described this phenomenon in his decades-old book, The Hero’s Farewell.
In it Sonnenfeld noted that while some aging CEOs exited gracefully while they still enjoyed wide acclaim, many hung on too long, reluctant to face their own mortality. There was William Paley, the titan of CBS, who challenged his biographer by asking just why he had to die. And there was Armand Hammer, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, who put in place a long-term incentive plan for himself with a ten-year payout horizon — when he was in his 90s. Few executives or political leaders are as wise as UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, who retired after winning his tenth championship — quitting while he was on top.
[To read the complete article, please click here.]
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Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. His newest book, from HarperBusiness, is Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.
David Halberstam tells the story of the board meeting when William Paley tells the rest of the board that it is time for CBS to begin phasing out its focus on radio and put all of its effort into the new medium television. It’s been a few years since I read the story in the book The Powers that Be, but as I remember, Mr. Paley pulled this power play when there were only a few thousand television sets in the entire country. And, in case you missed it, Mr. Paley was correct – radio did fade, and television won the day. Mr. Paley knew that the battle was already over, and he chose to be on the right side of that battle at exactly the right moment. (By the way, CBS was dominant in the ratings in radio first, then television, because of the incredible vision and timing and leadership of Mr. Paley).
Which brings us to the current battle. My colleague Karl Krayer is convinced that the Kindle is just a flash in the pan, a fad, something that has no chance of winning the battle over the traditional/physical book. (read his post here).
He may still be right – but I don’t think so.
Barnes & Noble sold out of The Nook this holiday season. Rumors are swirling that Apple will soon have its fabled tablet, which will at some point have a competitive e-reader built in. And now, Seth Godin proclaims the battle is already over – and the Kindle has won. (I assume that he means the e-reader has won. We will wait to see if the Kindle itself is the long-term winner). Here are Godin’s words from a recent post:
If you want to know if a ship is going to sink, watch what the richest passengers do.
iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.
Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
“It’s over,” says Godin. Nothing is worse that winning yesterday’s competitive battles when the battle field has shifted.
And, on a personal note, this is a classic case of “it doesn’t matter what I want — the future is upon us!” I prefer real books, with pages, and weight… But what I want and like may not matter much at all.
(For a far more serious version of this contest, we really don’t know where Al Qaeda is mustering its forces and planning its next actions. Afghanistan; Pakistan; Yemen, somewhere else? We really do have to get this one right!)