Trying to Fill "Big Shoes"?

Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 12:07 PM EDT

It's one of those famous sayings in sports: "You don't want to be the guy who follows a legend. You want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend."

This adage circulates in coaching circles and often evokes the name of Gene Bartow, who was UCLA's coach after basketball legend John Wooden retired. Bartow has kind words for Wooden but says that every loss at UCLA was treated as a "major catastrophe." After two seasons, Bartow left and become athletic director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Bartow's experience is relevant these days as Leon Panetta takes over from Robert Gates at the Department of Defense. Having served two presidents and presided over two wars, plus Libya, Gates gained a reputation as a tough guy when it came to tackling bureaucracy and helping to shape strategy but a soldier's best friend when it came to dealing with troops.

Leon Panetta is no lightweight. As a former congressman, presidential chief of staff and most recently Director of the CIA, Panetta is certainly his own man but there is no question that he has big shoes to fill. The challenge will be, can he fill Gates' shoes? Time will tell but the short answer is no. Panetta must be Panetta as Gates is Gates. A leader's first responsibility is not to his predecessor, it is to the organization.

Here's my advice for anyone who is facing this challenge:

Affirm the organization's purpose. The new leader must address what the company does and pay tribute to it. For Panetta, this will be easy. The same commitment to national service that stirs him is the same one that drives the men and women in the Defense Department. A leader taking over a successful enterprise must talk about why what it does matters and how it matters. He must communicate his understanding of it to people who know it better than he does. Not easy, but the leader must make a best effort.

Recognize the team. Leaders accomplish little by themselves. The previous leader's legacy is built upon the good people she developed and who repaid that opportunity with outstanding service. Savvy newcomers always make a point of reassuring such employees that their contributions are important and must continue to be

Do the right thing. Duh! One of the smartest things that Jack Welch ever said, and he said it often, was that his successor was not to be like him. Jeff Immelt is nothing like Welch, other than successful, anymore than Welch was like Reg Jones who preceded him. Every leader will face his own challenges because an organization must succeed in dynamic environment where circumstance, situations and systems change. A leader's commitment is to help the organization succeed in the new environment not the one in the history books.

Leon Panetta does have one advantage over many executives I know who have followed a successful executive. He, like Gates, is an outsider. Although he has a long record of government service Panetta is new to the Defense Department. That can work to his advantage. It gives him the ability to ask "dumb questions." These are the obvious questions that must be asked in order to start fresh. Such questions run the gamut from questioning processes, challenging the mission, and evaluating senior staff. An insider is supposed to be the know-it all and that can work against him because often he may be a participant or initiator in what needs to be changed or in some cases undone.

When Following a Legend is a Good Thing

Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, took over from the indomitable Lou Gerstner who had helped rescue the company from near-collapse. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, took over from the people-savvy Anne Mulcahy who helped rescue the company. Both have done well for their companies and remain highly regarded.

Having big shoes to fill is not always a bad thing for a leader. The challenge is not to walk in those footsteps-- it is to create a new path forward.

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image courtesy of US defense


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