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Leadership, succession planning and Nelson Mandela

If you had a magic wand and you could decide exactly what you want to do in your business, and what you don’t want to do, what would be on your personal wish list of wants and don’t wants?

Before you decide, you may want to reflect on your value as a leader and what type of leadership your business needs at the current stage of it’s life-cycle. These thoughts (and an extra chapter for my ISOP* book!) were inspired by reading various tributes to Nelson Mandela and a blog written by Neil Crofts.

There is a good chance that you are not a stereotypical larger than life, extrovert business owner. Such people are rarely able to imagine a business (or anything else) being run by anyone other than someone in the same mould. Hence their succession planning ideas are limited to selling, ideally to someone even more egotistical than themselves, because that makes them an even better leader (so they believe).

Or, you may be actively looking for the holy grail of a new MD who is some kind of clone of you, but a generation or so younger and willing to commit to the business for the next 30 years and who will instantly command the respect of the rest of your team.

My guess is that you are interested in ISOP because you can see that it is possible for the business to be run without such a leader. If you don’t think that way now, then I hope you will change your mind as you read this chapter.

The nature of leadership

The media is full of stories of Nelson Mandela’s life and what made him so special. My favourite anecdote about him was from John Simpson, the veteran BBC journalist. He described how despite, arriving 1.5 hours late for a meeting, Mandela had greeted him with great warmth and affection. Simpson then observed that Mandela would always treat people “as if they were the best that they thought they could be”, and not focusing on their weaknesses or failings of the past.

It struck me that this would be a perfect way to define the qualities of any great leader; treat everyone as if they were the best that they could be, regardless of how far below that level they currently stand, or despite lapses that lower them to a less laudable position.

Reading Mandela’s obituaries and the countless articles about him celebrating his life, it seems clear that he never set out to be a leader. He did it because he had to, in order to harness the support and respect he had gained during his life of activism and subsequent imprisonment for the benefit of South Africa and specifically ending apartheid.

I never chose to be a leader either, and thinking back, I seem to have defaulted into that role because there seemed to me to be an obvious need to make changes in the business, or opportunities that were being ignored by the notional leaders of the business at the time. (In my case this was the opportunity to provide “added value” services to our accountancy clients, and to systemise how we ran our business.)

I suspect that leaders like me, who never actively chose to lead, are more likely to be open to broader options for succession planning simply because they know that they are really no better than other people – they assume the best of other people and see the potential they have to lead and excel in most areas better than they can themselves. In his blog post soon after Mandela’s death, Neil Crofts, author of Authentic Business, described perfectly why these reluctant leaders are what is needed in today’s world of increasing inequality of wealth and opportunity – please see the link to Neil blog post below.

What should your role be in your business?

I hope these ideas may make you think again about the ways in which you bring value to your business and, perhaps why you are a better leader than you thought you were.

This is important because, if you defaulted into leadership the way I and many others have, you may have been assuming you and your business have been successful because of luck and hard work, whereas actually it may be that your leadership style is exactly right for your business and your team. If that is the case, maybe you are willing to retain more of a leadership position long into the future, after passing across the day to day hassles of dealing with the stuff you don’t like. And maybe you will see more potential in your current employees to lead collectively in support of your new, more withdrawn leadership position. If that is the case then an ISOP style employee-owned solution may be the right choice for your business after all, and maybe you don’t need to keep looking outside the business for that new leader that you assumed would be needed, either as a new recruit or as part of a new owner’s management team if you were to sell?

Please post a comment or contact me with your thoughts.

My thanks to Neil Crofts for the inspiration to write this blog.  Please see Neil’s blog here

*ISOP = Income and Share Ownership Planning


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