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I wrote the first book on CEO departure challenges called The Hero's Farewell (Oxford University Press). Sumner Redstone is emblematic of a type I've labeled "monarchs." They only exit feet first — through a palace revolt or dying in office — and are commonly found in personality-infused businesses such as fashion, technology, media and, of course, Hollywood. They represent 5 to 6 percent of CEOs across all sectors, but in creative businesses and dynastic family enterprises, they're closer to 25 percent.
Redstone, at 93, has sat on the throne of Viacom and CBS's controlling company, National Amusements (initially his father's theater chain), for roughly fifty years. He falls in a long line of entertainment and media mogul monarchs: Louis B. Mayer similarly started with a New England theater chain and went on to co-found and lead MGM studios for nearly three decades before being forced out in 1951. CBS visionary William Paley ran that media empire for over 50 years and remained involved until his death at age 89 in 1990. Lew Wasserman built up MCA Universal out of a talent agency and ran it for roughly fifty years, until sidelined at age 82 by new owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. Another super agent, IMG founder Mark McCormack, died at 72 with no clear successor.
The palace intrigue that follows a monarch's ultimate exit imperils their primary mission — an immortal legacy. Monarchs regularly dispense with those in the succession pipeline whom they see as threats.
Redstone may, or may not, be at the top of his game, but independent assessors seem to back his mental competence despite his frail physical condition. Regardless, one would surely question his sanity if he retained his failing lieutenant Philippe Dauman, an underperforming exec who looked to sell off Viacom assets such as Paramount at fire sale prices to prop up his tenuous standing. And Dauman is now exploiting his owners' resources to sue them, desperately trying to retain his position.
Tragic situations such as this do not have to be the only script for showbiz succession. Consider these five exit strategies.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is a Yale School of Management senior associate dean and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice.
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