I recently heard a story about a new CEO hired by the board to turn around a failing company. The outgoing CEO told him, “I have left 3 envelopes in the desk for you. When the first crisis comes, open the envelope labeled ‘What to do in Crisis 1.’ Open the second envelope with the next crisis, and the third envelope when you get to the crisis after that.”
After several months, the CEO found himself in a difficult situation, seemingly no-win. He remembered the CEO’s gift and opened the first envelope. “Blame the old CEO” was written on a sheet of paper inside.
The new CEO did just that, and the crisis abated.
Later in the year a new crisis came up. The instructions in the second envelope were also the ticket to success: “Reorganize.”
Life in the company went on, a few bumps here and there, and then another big crisis occurred, big enough to threaten bankruptcy.
The CEO remembered that there was still one more envelope. He eagerly ripped it open to find these instructions:
“Prepare three envelopes.”
We cynically chuckle at this because there is some truth in the pattern: Leadership has problems, new leader brought in with big promises and a reorg, leadership has problems, repeat. Some of you may have thought “I wonder if my predecessor left me envelopes?” There’s a lot of commonality for leaders, regardless of the type of organization you’re leading.
Leaders must cultivate humility. Better leaders than we have been felled by problems and circumstances, too. Strive, learn, move forward. Even if you say to yourself, “It wasn’t my fault,” there will still be lessons to learn so you can lead better in the future.
Whatever problem you face, someone has seen it before. There are new technologies, and new business models – but people are largely the same, and leadership is fundamentally people work. Learn from the experiences of others. Biographies are particularly helpful as a resource.
There’s value in passing along what you’ve learned. Smart leaders get things accomplished. Great leaders get things accomplished and do so in the spirit of a multigenerational leadership reality. Consider how you help the next waves of leaders.