“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” General Charles DeGaulle

This is so very true of the Indian corporate sector -- be it the so-called professional leaders who take themselves just too seriously to the point of being megalomaniac (well-assisted by their coterie of sycophants), or their boards who are happy with business financial success and forget one of their core task -- to proactively plan the CEO succession, or the family patriarchs who warmed the chair for too long, ignoring the next gen talent.

The celebrated management author Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great” speaks of a leadership model he calls “a genius with a thousand helpers.” This describes a leader who is great at what (s)he does, and therefore, ends up making all the critical decisions. Over many years, they become indispensable for the entity, due to their experience and knowledge. The leader fails in perspective, simply because (s)he has not built any of her/his colleagues to raise above the ranks. Few of them leave the entity for higher leadership roles or simply stay put due to the wealth vested with the current position. Sounds familiar in corporate India scenario?

Immortal Indian business leaders

Leaders who are indispensable, take pride in personally engaging in each project; sometimes to the extent of micromanaging their teams. They often focus on flawless execution, and in the process, create an environment where others in the team are either afraid to take on greater responsibilities or are never given the chance; and every such project outcome must add to kudos for the CEO. Such leaders often go on to become industry stalwarts. It is but natural, that their organisations can’t look beyond them or even dare to. The result: the organisations runs in maintenance mode, initially with much disruption, and later to hold onto the individual’s legacy.

By the looks of it, Indian business leaders are simply immortal. Succession planning has not been taken seriously, but for few outliers. This is where corporate governance, especially succession planning fails; even the regulator does not have strong norms around these.

Most of the Indian businesses have been built around individuals who are unwilling to relinquish control or develop others who could add strength to their organisations. While many a question are thrown at public sector enterprises, atleast they have formal and a functional leadership succession planning process; and importantly a formal retirement process too.

No one is indispensable! Yet corporate India has tonnes of examples of how delusional individual leaders and those blind boards are. The boards seem to be oblivious to the natural concepts such as death and retirement; well, they are not just insurance products!

(The author is a corporate advisor & leadership coach)

Dispensable is proactive succession

If you are a leader who cares about people development, you take succession planning very seriously. You list all critical positions and prepare for contingency situations and elaborate a clear and robust succession plan. That includes your position. Leaders who do not prepare for their succession are really doing a disservice to their organisation. More importantly, leadership as a competence or trait or skill, is not genetically transferred. While some of personality traits could be.

A CEO needs to be able to designate a successor and to actively prepare that person to take over. Proper preparation includes advanced training, adequate mentoring and a fair amount of coaching. That includes working with this successor on areas of improvement and leadership gaps, without creating a clone of themselves. It is about being able to transition a new leader in their role while respecting the leadership culture.

This brings us to one of the hardest things to do as a leader -- to intentionally make oneself dispensable! To be able to let go with confidence, knowing you have honed your team to take care of business. As the smart-alec saying goes, all CEOs will eventually leave office, some of them might be carried in the last passage!

A self aware and self confident leader, who is secure in what (s)he does and wants to do with formal retirement time, knows to build the next line of management. A worthy successor, at the right time, not too late, is the true legacy. But who will ask the ‘indispensable’ leader?

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