The Horse Race to the CEO Position

A horse race is a contest of speed among horses that are either ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies and their drivers. The term is also applied to a leadership contest that pits several senior executives against each other to see who will become the next chief executive officer of a company. Proponents of the horse race approach to succession say that it demonstrates a board’s confidence in its management, its leadership development processes and its people. It also encourages employees to aim higher and strive for more challenging assignments. However, critics contend that the horse race can lead to destructive conflict and damage a company’s reputation.

A company’s board of directors should consider whether the culture and organizational structure are conducive to an overt horse race for the top role, and how a potential successor will fit into the company. The board should also be aware of the risks associated with this method and decide if it is worth the effort and expense.

An executive with strong leadership and communication skills and a history of success in a particular function could be considered the best candidate for the CEO position. Those qualities are especially important when the company needs to change direction or execute on an ambitious growth plan, experts agree. A company’s board and current CEO should also consider the capabilities of the other candidates in the horse race, and determine if any of them would be better suited for the role.

In the past, horse racing was dominated by long distance races, which demanded both speed and endurance. But British soldiers returning from the desert battlefields of the Middle East brought back stories of their enemies’ horses running over sand dunes at astonishing speeds, and this inspired breeders to try to develop leaner, faster equines. By the 1700s, wealthy landowners were shipping their prized horses across the Atlantic to England to be bred to these new, fast Thoroughbreds.

The greatest Flat races in the world are known as the classics, and their distances vary from a mile to four or more miles. The most prestigious are the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Melbourne Cup, the Japan Cup and the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in the United States. Only 13 horses have won the Triple Crown by finishing first in all three of these races.

In a classic horse race, the competitors run at a blistering pace from the start, and only those with the utmost speed, agility and endurance can win. One of the most memorable examples of this was Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont Stakes victory to clinch the US Triple Crown in 1973. Race commentator Brough Scott called it “the hardest, most implacable, most moving Flat race I have ever seen,” and it was soon dubbed the Race of the Century.

Newsrooms may rely on horse race reporting in an attempt to attract more viewers and readers, especially in key swing states. But such coverage can be harmful to voters, third-party candidates and the news industry itself, according to a growing body of research.