President Obama’s Awkward Position

December 19, 2016, 3:10 PM UTC

Undoubtedly someone keeps track of this, but what do you think is the ratio of attention paid to the president-elect as compared with attention paid to the president? I suspect the ratio is now the highest it has ever been. Every day, the media and certainly social media care more about what Donald Trump is saying or doing than about what President Obama is saying or doing, for example with regard to China’s seizure of and agreement to surrender a U.S. Navy underwater drone over the weekend. This illustrates a reality that, like the ratio, seems to be greater than it used to be: The minute people know when you’ll be giving up your leadership position, and especially when they know who will take it over, you’ve lost it, regardless of what the calendar says.

Obama isn’t the only leader in that awkward situation. Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson will turn over the CEO’s job to Darren Woods on January 1; Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman will be succeeded by Jim Umpleby on the same day; Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent will be succeeded by James Quincey on May 1. All those companies are corporate aristocrats in which the new leader will maintain a respectful public silence until the appointed day. But internally, we all know that attention has already shifted entirely to the new leader’s every movement and utterance. The CEO, though still carrying the title, is yesterday’s man.

In a world of instantaneous near-universal communication in which nearly everyone can reach nearly everyone else continually, leaders may want to reconsider policies on leadership transition. Mandatory retirement dates, once seen as a sign of comforting stability and predictability, may no longer make sense. Obviously we still want mandated terms for government leaders. But for other organizations, strict retirement policies may now weaken a leader from his or her first day in the top position by telling everyone when he or she will leave. That’s especially true as life expectancies rise and more leaders remain at the top of their game well past age 65. Warren Buffett, still performing spectacularly at 86, once told Fortune how he feels about the CEOs of his subsidiary companies: “My God, good managers are so scarce I can’t afford the luxury of letting them go just because they’ve added a year to their age.”

Investors still like to see a strong leadership pipeline as the boss gets older. But the old practice of naming the successor six months or even a year in advance is senseless in today’s environment; no company should be hamstrung with a lame duck leader for that long. And as for when the best time to change a leader, the best advice now is: Keep ’em guessing.


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Produced by Ryan Derousseau

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