Continuity at the Top
Since 1892, which of the following institutions has seen the fewest changes in leadership? (A.) Catholic Church (B.) General Electric (C.) U.S. Presidency (D.) British Prime Ministers
- The Catholic Church has had a lower turnover rate of leadership than many major global institutions.
- IBM, matches GE’s record in the low number of chief executives to date.
- Since 1892, 24 individuals have held the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
- The turnover among British royals has been less frequent, with only six monarchs since 1892.
For any large institution — whether a private-sector company, government or world religion — stability and continuity are important prerequisites for success. A low rate of turnover at the very top is often a key ingredient for such stability.
We wonder: Since 1892, which of the following institutions has seen the fewest changes in leadership?
A. Catholic Church
B. General Electric
C. U.S. Presidency
D. British Prime Ministers
A. Catholic Church is not correct.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the 266th reigning pope and head of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013. Popes are elected to serve for life.
Pope Francis succeeded Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany.
When Benedict resigned the papacy in February 2013, not quite eight years into his reign, he became the first pope to resign in 598 years, when Gregory XII stepped down only ten years into his tenure.
Francis is only the eleventh pontiff since 1892. And despite Pope Benedict XVI’s uncommon resignation for his office — an event much more common in the world of politics and business — the Catholic Church has had a lower turnover rate than many major global institutions, although not the lowest one.
Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, served as pontiff for almost 27 years, from October 1978 to April 2005, the longest tenure of any pope since 1892.
Ironically, the reign of his predecessor, John Paul I, was the shortest, ending with John Paul’s sudden death only 33 days after his election.
B. General Electric is correct.
Leaders at General Electric (GE) are in fact a rarer breed than U.S. presidents, Supreme Court chief justices and popes. Jeffrey Immelt, the current chairman and CEO, is only the ninth person to hold the company’s top post since it was founded in 1892. He began his tenure on September 7, 2001.
GE is also the only company that has been continuously listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average since the index was first launched in 1896.
Another, perhaps even more iconic U.S. company, IBM, matches GE’s record in the low number of chief executives to date.
Virginia M. “Ginni” Rometty, who joined the company as a systems engineer in 1981, became IBM’s ninth chief executive in the company’s 100-year history in January 2012. She is the first woman to serve in that post.
However, IBM has only been in existence since 1911, when it was incorporated as the Computing-Tabulating Recording Corporation in Endicott, New York. It adopted the name International Business Machines in 1924.
Its stability at the top, while impressive, does not reach as far back as GE’s, which was founded two decades earlier than IBM.
Moreover, owing to the increasing business difficulties in which IBM finds itself, there is increasing speculation that the company’s current chief executive may not be in that post much longer.
C. U.S. Presidency is not correct.
Barack Obama is the 22nd person to hold the office of President of the United States since 1892. If one goes back nine “chief executives” of the United States, one only reaches back to the year 1963, when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded President John F. Kennedy following Kennedy’s assassination.
The seven Presidents in between were Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford (who served the remainder of Nixon’s second four-year term following Nixon’s resignation), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
By comparison, there is much more continuity at the top of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Chief Justice of the United States is appointed to the post, not elected.
John Roberts — sworn in decade ago on September 29, 2005 — is only the tenth person to hold that position since 1892.
One reason for their longevity in office is that, while U.S. presidents are limited to two four-year terms, the chief justice — like all Supreme Court justices — is tenured for life.
Since 1892, 22 individuals have served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, arguably the most powerful office in the U.S. Congress and second in line to succeed the President (after the Vice President).
Since 1950, around the time when the modern incarnations of China and India were founded, China has had seven major leaders, including incumbent Xi Jinping, who took office in 2012.
India, meanwhile, has had 15 different prime ministers (all men except Indira Gandhi). Russia and its predecessor state, the Soviet Union, has been led by nine different men since 1950, when Stalin was nearing the end of his reign.
D. British Prime Ministers is not correct.
Since 1892, 24 individuals — all men except Margaret Thatcher — have held the post of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. David Cameron, elected in May 2010, is the current office-holder.
Attesting to the helter-skelter of British politics, some of them — including Winston Churchill — actually served multiple times in that post.
The turnover among British royals has been far less frequent than that, with only six monarchs since 1892.
Among them, Queen Elizabeth II — the current monarch who began her reign on February 6, 1952 — has served for 63 years. That is more than half of the 123-year span since 1892.
On September 9, 2015, Elizabeth became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing that of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who served from 1837 to 1901.