We may pity the person following someone who is widely acclaimed in their field. But they are doing really important work, and we should thank them.
A Tennessee democrat who was firmly committed to the Union, Andrew Johnson had a distinguished career as congressman, senator and governor of his state. Hoping to send a message of reconciliation to the rebellious South, Lincoln chose Johnson as his vice president in 1864. Johnson’s debut on the national stage went poorly, with a rambling and perhaps drunken speech when he assumed office in March 1865. Lincoln followed with a masterpiece, his Second Inaugural Address. Little did anyone know that in only six weeks, at one of the most crucial times in American history, the rambler would be President.
A Missouri democrat who came to national prominence investigating fraud, waste and abuse on the Committee of Military Affairs during the Second World War, Harry Truman had earlier served as farmer, haberdasher, judge and US senator. With President Franklin Roosevelt in declining health and many expecting that he would not survive his fourth term, the party looked for a vice president who could succeed in the top job. Eighty-two days after the Inauguration, Roosevelt lay dead, and Truman took the top job.
Johnson struggled during his presidency, continually battling Congress on civil rights and other issues, being impeached by the House, and retaining his job by only one vote in the Senate. Historians have judged him to be among the worst presidents. Truman could never compete with the wildly popular Roosevelt, and did not try. He stuck to his agenda and his style through the atomic bomb, economic upheaval, strikes, the war in Korea, and the start of the Cold War. Though his approval rating was 22%, the worst ever, in the final year of his presidency, Harry Truman is now ranked among the best US presidents.
Many have considered why Johnson failed and Truman succeeded in their quest to follow a superstar. Johnson had the disadvantage of following a relatively young and still healthy president who no one expected to die. He also had to rebuild the nation. Truman’s ascension to the presidency was expected, but he had to stabilize the world. This article attempts to help leaders know how to follow predecessors whom others consider to be superstars.
Publicly Acknowledge Reality
1. Your predecessor is loved; do not be perceived as diminishing that in any way. If you do, you, not he, will be diminished.
2. Charles de Gaulle is the most famous man credited with saying “The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men.” While it is true that the world will not collapse with the loss of any individual, it is equally true that no one is replaceable. Each person’s combination of knowledge, skills, personality, and industry is unique. Don’t even try to replace a predecessor.
3. However, many people could do any given job competently. Your job is not to replace a superstar, but to use your unique attributes to move the team and the organization to the next level and face a new set of challenges.
4. No one, no matter how good, can or should stay in a job forever. New times call for new people. Lincoln had an excellent plan for bringing the United States back together after the Civil War, but Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in human history. Judging from his performance at Yalta, it is not clear that Roosevelt grasped how the world would be after World War 2, and not clear that he had a sound plan.
5. There are some people in the organization who do not consider your predecessor a superstar. No one is loved by everyone. No matter how good you are, you are not loved by everyone either.
1. If your predecessor is a real superstar, he will be sad to leave the people he has worked with so well. However, he will not impair your transition.
2. Once she is gone, she will not interfere in the organization. She will stay gone unless asked to assist.
1. Maintain the advances of your predecessor. Andrew Johnson kept Lincoln’s rough outline for gently bringing the South back into the Union, although he struggled against a vindictive Republican congress. William Taft advanced, albeit imperfectly, Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. Neither tried to turn back the clock.
2. Move the organization ahead to meet new challenges. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, but Joshua led them into the Promised Land. Moses’ task was great and his results were legendary. Joshua’s task was also great, and his results also stood the test of time.
3. Know and use your own style. You will fail if you try to mimic someone else. You have strengths and weaknesses just like she does.
4. Improve your strengths, improve your weaknesses, and use your staff to help compensate. Andrew Carnegie, the American steel magnate, famously opined that the key to success was to surround yourself with good people.
5. Leaders are beloved by their troops because they love their troops. You must care for your people more than you care for yourself. The Chinese military writer Sun Tzu wrote
“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”
6. Leaders are respected because they know their job better than anyone else, and work hard.
7. Leaders are followed because they know where the organization should go and how to get there.
8. As you are accomplishing your mission, enjoy your job and your team. They will not enjoy you if you do not enjoy them.
Anticipate a Positive Future
1. Make sure that your team knows that while their beloved leader has moved on, the team’s future is bright. It is your job and theirs to make the future better.
2. If your predecessor is a real superstar, rather than someone who is interested primarily in himself and his legacy, he will want your tenure to be even better than his, because he wants the best for the organization. The group’s well-being is more important to him than his own.
Some may argue that Andrew Johnson had no chance to succeed following Lincoln, and that the best he could have done was to be a placeholder until the next president came in and the magic of Lincoln had faded from public memory. However, as the examples of Truman and Joshua prove, capable men can succeed in the long shadow of superstars.
You may be following a superstar, but no matter how good, his or her time is over, and yours has begun. You have been placed in this new role by your superiors, and by powers even higher. You must respect and appreciate the past, but you must shape the future. Now all that remains is to do it.