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by Phil Stott | September 14, 2009


Associated Press/Paul Sakuma

Let's imagine for a moment that you're irreplaceable. Not just in your own mind, but in the minds of your employees, investors and customers. That a company that lost you—be it to retirement, another company, or through illness or death—would never recover. Sounds like a nice position to be in, right?

Now imagine that you work for, or invest in a company that has such a person as a leader. Your entire livelihood or investment is tied up in the wellbeing, strengths and shortcomings of that person. If they go down, the chances are you and your investment will too. Doesn't sound quite so nice all of a sudden, does it?

In a recent article The Big Money identified 10 executives who are irreplaceable to the organizations they work for. Inspired by the fluctuation in Apple's fortunes following Steve Jobs' well-publicized leave of absence, the article provides a nice snapshot of some of the qualities and personality traits of various leaders that cause their tenure to achieve cult-like status. What it doesn't fully explore is the concept of how slight differences in those traits can spell the difference between a company losing a valuable leader and continuing to prosper, and an enterprise that implodes like a banana republic when its dictator is toppled. When considering the list from that perspective, two types of irreplaceable leaders emerge: "visionaries" and "personalities".

The "visionaries"
Of the 10 executives listed in the piece, only two emerge as being indispensible through the sheer weight of their presence, knowledge and vision for the future of their companies: Apple's Steve Jobs and Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett. Another candidate—AOL's Tim Armstrong—falls into a category all of his own; AOL can't afford to lose him because to do so would represent a setback so large that attracting a new person who's up to the job would then be nigh on impossible.

The "personalities"
The remaining seven names on the list—a litany of figures from Rupert Murdoch to Oprah Winfrey to pastor Rick Warren—all fall into more or less the same category: leaders who are irreplaceable because the organization they lead is so tied up with the personal brand or personality traits of the individual. Obviously, there are degrees—Oprah's various business concerns are much more likely to disappear along with her than, say, News Corp. if Rupert Murdoch departs—but the overriding concern for all other employees at those companies is the same: lack of continuity in succession planning. Companies that are built around the personality or ego of a single individual are likely to suffer disproportionately when that individual is no longer around.

Telling them apart
There's a simple way to determine if you (or the leader of your company) is irreplaceable: just try imagining the place functioning without its current head. Would the other executives—either alone or together—have the ability to step up and fill the void, or does the company thrive on the personality, decision-making abilities and/or connections of the head honcho?

If you find yourself leaning towards the latter answer for that question, there's another simple check to try: Is the CEO irreplaceable because of their knowledge, intuitiveness and capabilities, or because of their personality/personal brand?

In answering that question, most people should hope that the answer would be the former—that their boss is the "visionary" type. The reason? Even if a company loses a visionary leader today, that vision can be carried out by successors for at least a limited period of time, if not indefinitely. A company that thrives merely on a leader's personality, however, loses a major asset the very instant it loses that leader.

For that reason, it behooves anyone in a position of leadership to ensure that there is a clear plan for succession laid out in the event of their departure. Sure, most people don't think about such things on a daily basis—and especially not in this economy—but part of being a leader is ensuring that the organization you're devoting your life to building is capable of surviving beyond your tenure. Anything else, after all, is little more than a personality cult.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues