Applying Lessons in Life to Avoid Business Death

To leave the right lasting legacy executives need their version of a Labour Party just as Margaret Thatcher needed opposition to create hers.
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This week opened with news of three notable deaths, two will be greatly missed and mourned -- Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello -- and the third, Ron Johnson's JCPenney demise will not. Each offer useful examples for leaders to draw inspiration and lessons from, especially business executives.

Although Mrs Thatcher was known as the U.K.'s "Iron Lady" while Ms. Funicello was "America's girl next door" in entirely different fields, they both fulfilled their maximum potential, leaving lasting memories. Both were made better by confronting challenges and adversity allowing them to successully do things their way by sticking to their values, principles and convictions. Without fierce loyal opposition Margaret Thatcher could not have been the pragmatist who re-engineered the declining United Kingdom; without maintaining her squeaky clean image, Annette Funicello could not have endured the turbulent 1960's and '70s and allowed to gracefully fade from public life to raise a family and then battle a terrible disease. These were women who understood themselves in a way that made them utterly real to their public, allowing them to maintain respect in life and in death. It's legacy of the highest order, created by the consistent way these remarkable ladies conducted themselves.

Ron Johnson's JCPenney death is, of course, metaphorical and I wish him a long life of great happiness and success, the latter well within this talented executive's grasp if he learns from his JCP mistakes while also taking a page or two from Annette Fuicello and Margaret Thatcher. With JCPenney facing its own existential threat, its board is also wise to quickly learn these same lessons. From even before he officially became JCP's CEO November 2011 until Allen Questrom publicly questioned the retailer's future in March 2013 there is precious little evidence Mr Johnson faced even the slightest degree of constructive questioning from anyone. Johnson prepared, served, and then made sure everyone drank his strategic brew in an utterly harmful way. Established publicly traded corporations are supposed to have effective governance, checks and balances, in which key stakeholders are expected to offer conscientious challenges. By all appearances, however badly Ron Johnson miscalculated he was undermined by a board and senior managers that became his rooting section when they should have contested.

Small/emerging business leaders typically do not have the same infrastructure and resources available to them as Ron Johnson did at JCPenney and, therefore, have a more perilous time staying real and connected. To leave the right lasting legacy executives need their version of a Labour Party just as Margaret Thatcher needed opposition to create hers.

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