It has been months since The Today Show removed and quickly replaced well-known and longtime host, Matt Lauer. Soon after, NBC named Hoda Kotb to co-host with Savannah Guthrie. Good for NBC for moving quickly. In January, CNN reported that viewership has increased and ad revenue of $500 million has been secured. What should we learn from this?

Success breeds blindness.

When an enterprise is doing well, there is a tendency to give too much credit to a person, product or process that is believed to cause good outcomes. Correlations tempt us to think we know cause. Hero-worship isn’t far behind.

That other factors fade in importance is predictable. Why? Because a person who agrees to pay a large sum to an individual will almost always fall prey to the phenomena of self-justification. If I agree to pay “X” to have an individual in an important role, they must be worth it. We can expect, and will most often see, people at all levels justifying their decisions, even when they are outlandish. A quick look at valuations in M&A and the accompanying explanations is enough to tell us that there is more going on here than analysis.

Emotion is a driver in thinking and decision-making, even when vehemently denied. Click To Tweet

Let’s consider the case of a visible talent who is willing and adept at advocating for his interests. Add a skilled attorney and a few spurious correlations along with implied threats of withdrawing the talent and you have a recipe for rising compensation. Why does this work? Fear. Not fear of loss, but fear of looking stupid. This is the greatest fear of all, that we are wrong, naïve, or gullible. This fear leads even smart leaders to turn a blind eye to what they should see with clear eyes.

The phrase “no one is irreplaceable” is usually no more than a bromide; often repeated but rarely sincere. In my experience, most leaders who utter this phrase are doing so defensively. They say it just before explaining why they won’t remove someone who is an anathema to their values but brings in huge dollars or as a justification for their failure to ensure that their successor is ready. Richard Anderson, President and CEO of Amtrak, and former CEO of Delta Airlines said, “If the CEO does not have a successor ready, he or she has failed.”

If there has ever been an iconic leader, it was Steve Jobs. When Jobs was ill, Tim Cook stepped in and when it was time to name a new CEO for Apple, it was Cook. Sad? Yes. Successful? Also, yes. Other great examples are Frank Blake’s successor, Craig Menear at The Home Depot, Ed Bastian who succeeded Anderson at Delta, and W. Craig Jelinek who followed James Sinegal, founder and CEO at Costco. Each of these succeeded a well-known leader whose identity was closely tied to the company brand.

Shareholders and partners, even employees have reason to be concerned when a well-known person, associated with good results and a strong brand, approaches retirement or shows signs that they aren’t worthy of our trust. The first reaction is, “I can’t believe it” or “What will we do?” This is a natural, human, reaction but not one that boards and senior executives can permit themselves to fall prey to.

What helps? A mindset that:

  1. Views the enterprise systemically.
  2. Avoids hero-worship.
  3. Values and protects the soul of the enterprise.

The Today seems to be on very solid footing now. The “irreplaceable” has been replaced.

“Success breeds blindness” — what are your thoughts about this? Please share in the comments below.

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