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Everyone Is Irreplaceable (Part 1)

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Every individual is unique, has value, and no one will ever be replaced.


Tough guy bosses often threaten, “No one is irreplaceable.” What they mean is something like, “Don’t threaten me. We can manage fine without you.”

Nice guy managers say the same words to members of their team when a key staff member departs, but they mean something more along the lines of, “Don’t worry. We will be fine without her.”

The threat can work if a team member is bluffing; hoping for a raise. It sometimes reassures anxious team members.

Whatever the tone, it completely misses the point. Everyone is, in fact, irreplaceable. Every individual is unique, has value, and no one will ever be replaced.

No One Will Ever Be Replaced

This is the sorrowful truth of funerals. If the person we have lost is close to us, we absolutely feel the uniqueness, the irreplaceable-ness. Mourning is learning to live with the gap in our lives and in our hearts. Learning to appreciate and honor the fragile impermanence of life is one of the great gifts of Zen practice.

Funerals thrust this truth into our faces. However, losses are happening all the time and all around us. They are part of every work situation. Nothing is permanent.

There is a famous series of pictures dating back to China a thousand years ago and re-imagined many times. The “Ox-Herding” pictures depict the Ox-herders pathway to enlightenment. In an early picture, the herder catches his first glimpse of the Ox. In my life, I have followed a number of oxen. Last year, I caught a glimpse of an Ox in Las Vegas, of all places. Joanne Gerenser (Executive Director of Eden II Programs in Staten Island) had invited me to a Council of Autism Service Providers conference, and we were sitting at a roundtable discussion of succession planning with other CEO’s. That’s when I first saw this Ox.

We were all, one way or another, struggling with the challenge of planning to replace ourselves. I certainly felt tremendous ambivalence about this, and I imagine most of the others did as well. Someone said, “Don’t try to find someone who is going to have exactly your mix talents.” Wow. I could smile.

Yes, I was unique and special and all that, but we could still plan for what would happen next.

Certainly, I had heard people say that I could never be replaced, that my mix of skills was unique. It was very flattering. The idea that my successor doesn’t need to do everything I do and that that person might also bring skills that I don’t possess was liberating. While the functions that I fulfill might still need to be performed, they all don’t need to be done by the same person. In fact, some might not need to be done at all.

A Ten-Year Plan

When we think about a ten-year plan, a five-year plan and a “bus plan” (what happens if I get hit by a bus), we need to be planning for what Integration Charter Schools will need going forward, not just what we need now, and certainly not what we needed in the past.

A second glimpse: Dana Volini is out on maternity leave. She is our Vice President for Operations, and I have grown to totally rely on her reliability, attention to detail, and excellent judgment. But, what if she chooses full-time motherhood over returning to work?

Everyone is irreplaceable. Dana is irreplaceable. Dana is unique. No one could totally fill her shoes. If she chooses not to come back, I will be sad. I will miss her. But the idea that everyone is irreplaceable is actually consoling. We cannot “replace” her. We will not “replace” her. We do not have to try – because to try is to fail. We will move forward, organize work with new ingredients, both people already on the team and people who will join us. Some people are already doing wonderfully, assuming pieces of Dana’s workload while she is on leave. They can continue to do these things. What pieces remain? Which still need to be done? And what new tasks coming to the fore as we grow now cry out for attention? What are the priorities moving forward?

And what if she does return? Wonderful. I’m smiling. But we will not go backwards. Things have changed. Things are always changing. People who have stepped up to take on pieces of Dana’s job will continue in these functions. What are the new challenges? These perhaps are the tasks of the “new” Dana.

Everyone is irreplaceable. And yet if we are growing and if our organization is growing, the “me” of yesterday is continuously replaced by the “me” of today.

Out of the Ordinary Events

Perhaps it takes events which take us out of the ordinary routine to make the new possibilities visible.

I was serving on grand jury duty as I wrote this. For a month, I was out of the office three days a week. It was an extraordinary experience.

I recently read in one of John Maxwell’s books some thoughts on the use of time and have been trying to follow his advice to schedule meetings in blocks and to free up blocks of time for reflection and writing and reading. I “got It” intellectually but the grand jury experience has given me the opportunity, forced upon me the opportunity, to “get it” in my gut.

On the days that I was at the school, my days were chock full of back-to-back meetings and felt extraordinarily productive. I was exhilarated by the end of the day, while the days on the grand jury provided numerous blocks between chunks of testimony for reading, writing and reflection. The grand jury experience, disruptive of my prior routine and initially anxiety provoking, has provided a wonderful opportunity for me to reinvent the way I work.

The Next Generation

Planning for succession, of course, was initially even more anxiety provoking. Planning for succession, for eventual retirement, provokes all the anxiety associated with old age and death. Realizing that I had not wanted to deal with this, having preferred to stick my head in the sand and ignore the challenge, I began to deal with succession planning. What was at first anxiety producing became, surprisingly, the beginning of liberation from anxiety.

Realizing, “Well, of course, I am not going to be able to continue in this job forever.” I am able to open to and embrace the process of developing the next generation of leadership, allowing myself to enjoy this stage of my life.

Losing key associates evokes fear, though not as much as the thought of losing loved ones. In families, we all die, and often in an unforeseen order. In work, we will all move on, one way or another, and often in an unforeseeable and barely predictable process.

When we fail to embrace the reality, we set ourselves up for fear, for resentment and for anger. When we embrace the ever evolving, changing process of life, we liberate ourselves. Everyone is irreplaceable.


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