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Defending 'tombstone thinking'

Bob Woods

Bob Woods wrote a recent column for FCW
on the value of leading with an eye toward legacy.

Bob Woods provoked some sharp disagreement with at least one reader with his column, "The value of tombstone thinking," which encourages leaders to think about how a given project or course of action will look as part of their legacy.

A reader identified as Tim wrote: Actually, I will strongly disagree with the sentiment of this article. Tombstone management encourages discontinuity and has a net negative impact on organizational performance. If you are at a level in which you are considering tombstone management then you are at a very senior level of the organization. This means that you had a predecessor and will have a successor. Tombstone management requires you to abandon everything your predecessor did because all of that will be on his or her tombstone, not yours.

It will also require your successor to abandon everything that you are doing because that will be on your tombstone, not his or hers. Thus the net impact is that the staff will have whiplash because every two years when we have some new campaign. A lot of what goes on in federal IT requires a sustained effort. This approach, tombstone management, causes us to abandon horses that are winning the race and causes me to lose confidence in a leader whose ego is more important than good and effective government. I say tombstone management is a good thing if you want everything that you do to be ripped out by your successor. It has no staying power because you can never get sustained leadership.

Bob Woods responds: I am happy to get the feedback and always enjoy a debate. I don’t think I implied that what’s on your tombstone started and stopped on your watch. The point is that you should shoot for achievements that are real, that are understandable and not bureaucratic babble. Nowhere do I say or imply that you rip out what you find and start over. In fact when you come into and organization you will find things worth keeping and things that should be stopped.

It’s important to know the difference. Things worth keeping and new initiatives started will constitute what you and your organization are known for. As for whether leaders are simply making change to fulfill their ego, we have a lot of leaders who hide behind programs and processes and are unwilling to get the job done and be held accountable. If you work in an organization with all winning horses you are rare indeed. That’s not been my experience and leaders who think they have years to sort out the good from the bad and sow the seeds for the next generation should simply research how their predecessors fared.

Posted by Bob Woods on Apr 08, 2013 at 12:10 PM

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