Jones’ First Law, one of many useful corollaries to Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will.”) is usually stated:
“Anyone who makes a significant contribution to any field of endeavor, and stays in that field long enough, becomes an obstruction to its progress – in direct proportion to the importance of his original contribution.”
This week was a good one for Jones (whoever he was; I can’t seem to find out) if not for the rest of us, because two classic examples of his principle were on display: Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who managed to stay coach long enough to unravel his legacy and help lay the groundwork for an ethical, moral, legal, public relations, and financial catastrophe for the institution he had dedicated his life to, and J. Edgar Hoover, the subject of a newly-released Clint Eastwood directed film that shows how he too stayed long enough as the key figure of an institution he built—the FBI—to become an embarrassment to it.
Why this happens so often—the list is depressingly long, including such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William Paley (CBS), Hugh Hefner, Al Capp, William Aramony (United Way), Edwin Land (Polaroid), Connie Mack (the Philadelphia Athletics), Woody Hayes (Ohio State), Frank Sinatra, William Jennings Bryan (the Democratic Party), Jesse Jackson, Charles M. Schultz, Bobby Knight, Willie Mays, Helen Thomas, Ralph Nader, Charles de Gaulle, Jonas Salk, J.D. Watson, Gen Curtis LeMay (U.S. Air Force), Franklin D. Roosevelt, most of the original Hollywood movie studio heads, every mob boss, and too many more to mention—is a perplexing example of the human failure to learn the lessons of history when accepting that lesson means giving up power, celebrity, and influence. Many of those who fall victim to Jones’s Law are founders, like Hoover, and come under a sub-category called Founder’s Syndrome. Others, like De Gaulle, are leaders who fail the final test of leadership: know when to give it up, and how to help the next leader take over. Those who have avoided Jones’s Law are often fortunate in an ironic way—they die while they are still at their peak, like Walt Disney.
The problem is that advancing age, non-ethical considerations and multiplying rationalizations often combine with their iconic status to stop a Paterno or a Hoover from doing what younger versions of themselves would have conceded as unavoidable:
- Their skills are diminishing, but vanity, ego and fear keep them from admitting it, even to themselves.
- Bias causes them to believe that no potential successors can do a better job.
- They equate quitting their life’s work with dying.
- They see changing conditions that they are not equipped to adjust to as problems to be conquered rather than unavoidable realities.
- They feel that their service and accomplishments entitle them to their position as long as they want to stay in it.
- They become incapable of seeing themselves and the organization’s needs objectively, and refuse to respect the advice of those who can.
The end result of Jones’s Law is often tragedy with many victims, as in the case of Joe Paterno. Every founder, leader, pioneer, ground-breaker, sports star and living legend should have Jones’s Law framed and prominently placed over their favorite mirror, where they can be reminded of it every day. Then they can develop the habit of asking themselves, bravely and sincerely, every day of their lives, “Is it time to leave?”
The answer becomes “Yes!” a lot earlier than most of hope or think. If Joe Paterno’s fate can help teach the next generation of leaders that lesson, then something good will have come out of the Penn State fiasco,