Vladimir Lenin and leadership legacies

This article first appeared in DNA India on March 8th, 2018.

The media was dominated on Tuesday by images of a Vladimir Lenin statue being brought down. A scene eerily reminiscent of other statues being brought down in the erstwhile Soviet Union or even in Iraq.

Keeping aside the political and legal aspects of whether the statue should have been brought down in that manner, my mind turned towards those old lines from the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

These, in turn, made me consider the whole issue of a leader’s legacy. Seen in that perspective, one could imagine Lenin’s entire legacy as negligible since his ideology stands discredited even in his home country of Russia. However, I started to see if parallels could be drawn from the corporate world of what a legacy means in the organisational context?

Do legacies survive great leaders in their entirety or is there some other intangible factor that defines the legacy that a leader hands down to his successors?

Let’s look at two of the former CEOs of GE, Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt. Welch took over from Reginald Jones and immediately went about stamping “his way” of doing things in the organisation. He brought in the famous culture of performance appraisals where the bottom 10% were culled year on year. Welch turned GE towards the financial sector by plunging headlong into developing those businesses. He was also known to set and meet quarterly targets thereby satisfying Wall Street.

When Immelt took over, he had the burden of filling some rather big boots, which Welch had had to do in his day. Immelt abandoned Welch’s appraisal philosophy. He also began getting out of the financial services sector and changed his focus from meeting quarterly targets to taking a more long-term and strategic view of business in general.

GE is unique in that it is the only surviving member of the 1896 stock exchange and has had only 10 CEOs since then, one less than the number of Popes over the same time period. GE has also had a history of each successive CEO largely striking out in an entirely new direction from their previous CEOs.

So what does it mean for the legacy of all these leaders when each successive leader changes the direction in which the company is headed? Does that diminish the leadership qualities of these CEOs in any way?

One way to look at it is that while each of the CEOs demonstrated great leadership in their times, they also learnt how to walk away from it all and hand the baton over to someone who was more suited to piloting the organisational ship through the stormy seas of that particular era.

Rather than diminishing them as leaders, this buttresses their leadership credentials immensely.

Legacies thus are not necessarily in terms of the various lines of businesses that an organisation remains involved in but are more in terms of certain core values and ethos that great leaders leave behind that act like guiding beacons in troubled times for their successors to follow.

Seen from that angle, Lenin’s and Stalin’s legacies are non-existent.