It was at around 9:45 p.m. local time on the legendary Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland last Friday, when Tom Watson was teeing off on the 18th green. At the age of 60, Watson, a golfing legend, knew that it would probably be his last participation in the (British) Open Championship at St. Andrews. When crossing Swilcan Bridge on the way to his second shot, he stopped for a moment, took off his cap and posed for the photographers, while the spectators were celebrating the five-time The Open champion: Since Harry Vardon in the early 20th century, no one won the tournament more often than Watson. A legend enjoying the curtain call at St. Andrews.
When he walked on a minute later, Tiger Woods hit his Birdie put just a few yards further down the 18th green. Two players that were the best of their time: Watson in the late 1970s/ early 1980’s, Tiger Woods throughout the last 13 years.
Just a few days earlier, some 1000 miles south-west of St. Andrews: Another greatest of his time was experiencing in a brutal way that his career is about to come to an end. In the 8th stage of the Tour De France, Lance Armstrong lost 11 minutes and 45 seconds on winner Andy Schleck, an epic defeat for the man who dominated the Tour from 1999 – 2005.
When sportsmen like Watson or Armstrong end their career, many people ask themselves if they are the greatest of all time and if there will ever be someone coming who can match their achievements.
In most cases there will be. When Watson dominated the sport, he took over from Jack Nicklaus who himself followed Arnold Palmer and so on and so on. And after all those great players, who would have expected that a guy like Tiger Woods could come one day and dominate the game of golf maybe to an even stronger extend than any of the above did at their time?
The same story when we go back to cycling: When Eddy Merckx’s career ended, no one would have thought it would be possible that someone else could ever win the French tour five times, too. Then came Bernard Hinault. Then Miguel Induráin also managed the same number of wins. A few years later, Armstrong took the bar to seven wins.
At the same moment when Armstrong was struggling not to lose too much time on his way to Morzine-Avoriaz, back in the UK a certain Michael Schumacher came in 9th at the British Formula 1 Grand Prix. A seven time World Champion fighting for 9th place is a little bit like a seven time Tour De France winner fighting not to lose more than 10 minutes in one stage. We are used to Schumacher as a winner and can’t believe anyone will be on the level he was during his peak. However, looking back that peak came just shortly after the tragic death of Ayrton Senna who many believed back than was the driver with the best skills ever. Schumacher reached Senna’s level, yet he was a completely different type of driver.
Examples from three different sports (and I could at tons of others) that basically show one thing: Most probably there will be someone else coming in the future, who will at least be as good as the best one today, if not maybe even better.
Now if that is true in sports, why should it be any different in the business world? Yet, when you see many managers it seems like they feel they would be completely irreplaceable. Nonsense!
No matter how smart you are, there will be others that are as smart as or smarter than you. Many don’t believe it or try to camouflage it, as access to information and the level of experience may – for a certain time – make it less visible than in sports, where the physical factor probably plays a more important role, but both access to information and level of experience can be caught up with by someone else. And one day will be caught up with.
No one is irreplaceable.
Most would say they agree with this sentence, and some would also believe it. However looking at the examples I mentioned it has to go along with a second sentence that seems to be oh so tough to swallow:
The one replacing will be a replacement, not a copy.
Why is this so hard to accept for many? I’ve seen many that felt like someone showed they did something wrong when she did the same job also with great results, but in a different way than they did it. What a misconception! The same results can be achieved in different ways, and the way of doing it has to match the person doing it.
Still, how many entrepreneurs can’t agree to let someone else take over the company they built because they are afraid the new guy would handle the company in a different way? But if the new guys wouldn’t do things differently it would not work out as they are no copies of the old owners. They have a different style of working and therefore need to do things differently.
Or let’s move down a few steps in the hierarchy: When switching jobs, how many people try to impose their style of getting things done on their successors? And how much energy and handover quality is lost by doing so?
Everybody can be replaced. But only very few know how to be replaced in a productive way for themselves and the company. And it would be so easy: Just accept that different is not better or worse, first of all it is just – different.
Tom Watson knows that others will and already did replace him. He knows he can’t hit as far as the young players. He accepted it, had some fun at St. Andrews for the last time, thanked the people for their support and built the stage for others, like in the example for Tiger Woods.
Looking at the recent comeback attempts of Armstrong and Schumacher I have my doubts they can also easily accept others achieving great results in a different way than they did. The outcome is the same as in business: The end will hurt. Be that coming in 11 minutes 45 late, finishing 9th or seeing the company you built up collapse because no one took over in time and changed things when changes were due.