Two of the toughest jobs in 2012 will be new leader of Canada's NDP and new CEO at Apple.
Both people will follow legends who are being attributed abilities far beyond the realm of the possible by the rosy colouring of hindsight. This mountain of expectation makes replacing a legend a near-impossible challenge.
If you slavishly follow in their footsteps, you will fail to adapt to changing times. If you try to gradually change things, old stalwarts will find you wanting when compared to the idealized version of your predecessor.
In fact, it is convention wisdom that you don't want to follow a beloved leader. You want to follow the person who followed a beloved leader after the successor fails.
The Harvard Business Review had a good piece by Jennifer McFarland entitled "Succeeding Ms. (Mr.) Wonderful." Her advice is as follows:
1) Assess the revered leader's legacy. You need to know what people thought made your predecessor a success. It may not jibe with reality or be contradictory, but those perceptions are crucial.
2) Compare the legacy to your mandate. If you were brought in to sustain the success already achieved, trying to emulate a revolutionary leader who took huge risks won't work. You need to reconcile the way forward with your predecessor's legacy.
3) Spell out your mandate. Delineate the differences between your standards and those of your processor. Help people to see that those differences flow from the different situation you have inherited.
McFarland writes: "When the inevitable 'but she always did it this way' comment surfaces, the temptation to acquiesce and copy the behaviour of your beloved predecessor will be strong. Try to turn the temptation into an opportunity to describe your own leadership style with as much specificity as you can."
In short, stick to your strategic task and make sure everyone knows what it is.
4) Get the Right People On Board. If you are going to make major changes in personnel, do it early. "Give subordinates a chance to get on board with the program and to conform to the new standards," McFarland says. "But don't wait too long to decide that some people need to be moved off the bus."
Michael Watkins, a professor at Harvard, adds that it is a common pitfall to "retain subordinates with a record of mediocre performance in the belief that your leadership with make a difference. [The result is]you waste precious time and energy trying to compensate for the team's weaknesses."
Whether you are at Apple or running to lead the NDP, this advice makes sense.
Be clear about where and why you are going to differ from the past. Tell people where you are going. Give people a chance to join you in the new mission, and nudge those who won't be able to make the journey aside early.
Cook could use this advice. His email to Apple staff is a model of how to project continuity and reassure employees and shareholders. It's also garbage no one should believe.
Apple was built on creative destruction. The iPhone cannibalizes the iPod market; the iPad eats the Mac market share for breakfast. These are not the actions of a company that should or does treasure the status quo.
Cook will clearly change things because Apple has to change. It's in their DNA to change constantly. But he needs the time and space to work out his own mandate (likely in concert with his board chairman, one Steve Jobs.)
Look for Cook to begin spelling out a vision for the future of Apple, and clearly showing how his style and vision differ from the man who came before him.
The NDP is in the same boat. Like all parties, their past is retold internally as hagiography. This becomes an ideological anchor that hinders critical adaptation with time.
New Democrats recently underwent revolutionary changes in how they present themselves to the public. Now the party runs to govern, with more responsible pledges and less representational pressure policies. They desperately need to continue to do this and more if they wish to govern.
Layton's real gift to the NDP was the ability to change and with it capture renewed relevance. The leadership contest to follow him runs the risk of being a "who is most like Jack?" contest. That would be a mistake.
Instead, the candidates need to spell out how they differ from their predecessor and where they will be taking the party that is different from Mr. Layton. A compelling leadership would see candidates arguing over what the next step is for the NDP, with their abilities as a proxy for that strategy.
One candidate may proxy for "consolidate our Quebec breakthrough." A left-wing candidate may stand for "hold true to our beliefs." Another candidate may argue for "make the big play for government."
That clarity will also give party supporters a chance to decide if they want to stay working under a new leader to achieve that goal, or not.
Good luck to Mr. Cook and Mr. Layton's successor. It's a tough job