Leadership succession: Tony Blair, Terry Leahy, Alex Ferguson, Lord Browne … and Steve Ballmer

October 7, 2013

Leaders hailed as the greatest by direct comparison with their contemporaries often leave a legacy that is tough for a successor to deal with

This point was examined recently by journalist Chris Blackhurst [October 3rd 2013] in The Independent. He chose four towering figures from recent years, from politics, business, and sport.

He takes as his thesis that succeeding an influential leader is tough. His point is that the departure may be made with more concern by the leader for legacy than for the organisation’s longer term well-being.

The trigger

The article was triggered by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United football club which was followed by a poor start to the season for the new manager David Moyes. Moyes was very much Ferguson’s chosen successor, one of clearest examples available of a leader’s critical decision over succession.

At Old Trafford, David Moyes has succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson, only to find that last season’s Premiership champions are in poor shape, that the Manchester United squad requires urgent strengthening. As worrying for United’s fans and owners is that Moyes appears to have been put in charge of a team in torpor. They’re no longer playing with the same drive and hunger that so characterised the Ferguson reign.

Blackhurst makes the general point succinctly:

Beware the chieftain who has been in office for a lengthy period; who is used to getting their way, who only needs to snap their fingers and it will be done; who refuses to countenance stepping down, to the extent that no successor is properly groomed; and when they do finally decide to go, it is too late. Quitting while ahead – it’s the best management attribute of all.

He illustrates with the examples of Tony Blair, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, and Lord Browne of BP. He touched briefly on Margaret Thatcher, and might have added Steve Jobs of Apple, and [another very recent example] Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. A closer examination suggests that the situations and the leaders are too varied to provide a nice clean theoretical idea. Was internal selection possible or desirable? Did the leader leave without being forced out? Was the evidence of declining personal abilities to do the job?

Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, announced his retirement a few years earlier and the market value of Manchester United plummeted. The evidence is that he retracted and spent the next few years considering how his eventual retirement might be planned more successfully. He did not ‘refuse to countenance stepping down’, although Margaret Thatcher’s political demise was closer to the description offered by Blackhurst.

Tony Blair was successful in winning three elections for Labour, which he had reshaped as New Labour. His legacy is haunted by his military policy in Iraq. Blair tried but was unable to arrange a successor he wanted. Gordon Brown is seen as contributing to Labour’s defeat at his first election. Sir Alex a close confident of Tony Blair seems to have learned from his friend the art of personal retirement planning with an impressive and rapid entry into the lucrative celebrity circuit.

Terry Leahy at Tesco appears to have selected Philip Clarke or agreed with the decision. Mr Clarke found that the company was in near free fall.

Lord Browne, whom Blackhurst suggested stayed to long at BP, left after personal problems. His chosen successor Tony Hayward was engulfed by the greatest disaster to befall the company.

Steve Jobs left Apple for health grounds, but had some say in the appointment of his successor.

Lady Thatcher had no say in the matter, although her departure opened the way to Tony Blair’s successive election victories.

The dilemma of succession

Succession remains a dilemma for a leader, and for those considered candidates as a successor. The issue has been around for nearly as long as stories have been written about leaders. We should at least be aware of the possibility of the ‘hero to zero’ process, as an earlier and over-generous evaluation of a leader is rewritten.

An example of this can be found in an article in Business Week in 2006 hailing the succession planning in Microsoft when Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates. Mr Ballmer’s departure this month [Oct 2013] was told in a different way.

BP leadership and the line between determination and obsession

March 24, 2011

Author Shahzad Khan

by Shahzad Khan

John Brown, former CEO of BP wrote in his biography of the dangers of losing balance when ‘determination and enthusiasm turn into obsession’. The outcomes of his leadership and that of his successor Tony Hayward seem to confirm this

BP is a major energy company globally in terms of oil and gas reserves. Its progress has been accompanied by a range of mergers and acquisitions (US Standard Oil Company, Britoil North Sea Exploration Company, ARCO, Amoco, Solarex and Burma’s Castrol.) However, the company’s growth has been accompanied by a number of accidents and safety-related violations which have had tragic environmental and personal consequences.

Lord Browne the deal maker

Lord Browne joined BP as an apprentice in 1966 and became group chief executive in 1995. He was credited for much of BP’s success during his 12 year reign. He is considered a charismatic deal maker. His political connections with head of states were reported as significant negotiations in some of his business deals. Such a high-profile leader is seen as achieving the positive but also the negative results of his organization. Lord Browne was eventually forced to resign in 2007 three years ahead of his planned departure from the company for a personal scandal.

After its merger with Amoco in 1999, the former British Petroleum company was renamed and rebranded with a new Helios logo associated with the Sun God Helios. The media even began to label Lord Browne as the new Sun King.

The rise and fall of Tony Hayward

His favored replacement Tony Hayward was also to be forced to resign. The press seized on remarks cited by Harvard business guru Rosabeth Moss Cantor:

About a week after the April 20 explosion, Hayward was quoted in the New York Times asking his executive team, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?” Recently, he declared that “I want my life back.”

The dark side of charismatic leadership?
The patterns of behavior of both BP leaders is similar can be found in discussion of dilemmas of charismatic leadership by the American leadership scholar Jay Conger. Both Browne and Hayward believed in their ‘visions’. Admiration by media and business associates fuelled their charismatic styles. The dark side of Lord Browne as mentioned in his own accounts is that commitment to his vision for the company’s future meant that he ignored day to day operations of the core business activity. Someone noted that he used “I” a lot versus “we” in his book, in reference to BP’s successes. He may also fit a description of a pseudo level-five leader by Jim Collins: someone with an inflated ego presenting or promoting themselves as the most valuable asset for the company. One lesson from these cases may be the danger of letting a vision blind a leader from evidence that things are going seriously wrong at ground level.

To go more deeply

1. Mason, R. (2010). Beyond business: by Lord Browne: a review. The Telegraph
2. Irving, C. (2010). Why is BP’s former boss a UK hero? The Daily Beast
3. Campbell, R. (2007). BP corporate culture lambasted. Thompson Reuters,
4. Salama, A, Holland, W and Vinten, G. (2003) Challenges and opportunities in mergers and acquisitions: three international case studies-Deutsche Bank-Bankers Trust; British Petroleum-Amoco; Ford-Volvo, Journal of European industrial training 27(6), 313-321.
5. Kanter, R.M. (2010). BP’s Tony Hayward and the failure of leadership accountability. Harvard business school publishing

6 After the post was written: The Guardian reported that Lord Browne is considering acquiring assets up for sale by his old organization [Editor, LWD].

The case was written from an assignment prepared as past of the Global Events and Leadership module which introduces the Manchester Business School’s Global MBA program. The views expressed are those of the author.