Making Room for New Blood

In 1925, leadoff hitter Wally Pipp stepped aside because he knew the Yankees needed a rising star, Lou Gehrig, up at bat. What a legacy.

Feeling under the weather and don't want to go to work today? Well the wiseacres will tell you to show up anyway because you don't want to be like Wally Pipp.

Baseball enthusiasts recall Pipp as the Yankee first baseman who had a headache and sat for a day. His replacement was Lou Gehrig, who played the position for the next 2,130 consecutive games.

Makes for the good story, but it's not true, and in fact employers would be honored if they had more Wally Pipps on their teams. As Robert Weintraub writes in The House That Ruth Built, Pipp was a star, in fact the leadoff hitter in what became dubbed by sportswriters as Murder's Row. Babe Ruth was a latecomer to this lineup. By 1925, Pipp was 32 years old, then considered old for a player, and he was losing his skills. He knew the Yankees needed Gehrig's bat in the lineup so he told manager Miller Huggins to relay to Gehrig, "I have a headache or something." (Weeks later Pipp was beaned at the plate and did suffer a genuine headache.)

What we can learn from Pipp's example is that sometimes you need to step aside to make room for the next guy especially if that guy can do something better than you can. This may resonate more sharply with leaders who are coming to the end of their careers. They know, perhaps better than anyone, that they no longer have it within them to put in the work necessary to lead the team.

Such clarity comes from introspection but it also reaches possibility when the leader has options, chiefly a retirement income. In other words, you don't put yourself on the street if you have to live on that street.

So how do you know like Pipp that the gig is up? That comes from honest self-assessment as well as desire. You ask yourself if you have what it takes to be in charge and, frankly, whether you want to do so. If you decide to leave, and circumstances permit, you may want to spend time with your successor, mentoring him or her to assume responsibility.

Many organizations do this formally by designating a chief operating officer or executive vice president who will take on the top slot when the CEO retires. But it is also done less formally when bosses have input into their successors. The big caveat is to select someone who can do the job but who is not like you, someone who has the talent and skills to lead the organization into the future, not into the past.

A classic example of this is General Electric. Jack Welch has spoken many times about how grateful he was to his predecessor Reg Jones for allowing him to be his own man. Welch in turn did the same for his successor Jeff Immelt. Each CEO was different and did things they thought were best for the company, not because they thought it was what their predecessor would do.

Giving it up for the team is something that all leaders need to do. And sometimes that means turning over the reins voluntarily so that the next person can lead. That is a measure of a leader's legacy.

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