By Tony Samson
THE POLITICAL appellation “lame duck” should only refer to an incumbent with an already designated successor ready to take over. Such a mandated succession plan may not be wholeheartedly accepted by the incumbent. Still, the lameness of a political bird applies only to the interregnum between the present and future office-holder.
It is inaccurate to characterize an office-holder with multiple successors still vying for attention as a lame duck. This imagery of lameness refers to a bird with a damaged ability for locomotion, no longer able to keep up with the flock, lagging behind, and vulnerable to attack. A lame duck is helpless and impotent (not in the clinical sense) to get anything done. Its political support is quickly eroding with former allies preparing to turn their coats and move to another flock.
There are some advantages for a lame duck, as loosely used to refer to one near (or not too far) from the end of a fixed term.
One benefit is that this duck no longer needs to court public opinion too ardently. (Not that he did so, even before.) The growing indifference to popularity ratings reduces the power of critics to make him wince at naughty cartoons. Even if he plans to run for a lower office later (as two predecessors did), the constituency is no longer national and the appetite probably non-existent anyway.
Possible successors with eyes on the next election may not need too hard to court the incumbent for an endorsement. And yet they still need to be careful not to offend him, as he is anyway no longer a contestant. The value of his endorsement may be diminished, and it may not even be bestowed to a specific individual. Still, it is best to avoid his displeasure, as he can sprinkle some nails on the future candidates’ road to the future.
The incumbent’s powers, even in the waning days of his term, are not diminished. They run the full course until the formal inauguration of his elected successor. These are limited only by the rules on midnight appointments.
The last months of any administration focuses a leader on legacy issues, including the ability to make a graceful exit. There are, too, projects and landmark achievements that will figure in future eulogies. In the death of Nelson Mandela, it was the bloodless transition from apartheid to equality that was his legacy. Forgiveness, compromise, and the avoidance of racial excesses were the historical footprints that that leader left behind in the sand. This included supporting and cheering for a national football team.
There are all sorts of ducks that come up in public life.
In a worse situation than our lame duck is its sitting version. This one is blissfully unaware of dangers lurking around the pond. The designation of sitting duck then refers to someone about to be turned into duck soup, with two other ways: the skin sprinkled with hoisin sauce ensconced inside a soft white wrapper, and minced meat using lettuce leaves to hold it together. None of these three ways are sparing of the duck’s feelings.
The sitting duck is also found in corporate life. (Yes, he can even be working from home.) Even without an identified successor waiting in the Zoom lobby, rumors swirling around the possibility of a CEO position being vacated when there is a current occupant who has not been told of this development is bound to make this sitting duck nervous. The very mention of the phrase “succession planning” can send the heart rate north. Names are even floated around, including those presently employed by the competition.
Ducks are externally calm birds, serenely floating above the water, seeming to be listening to the wind whistling through the trees. Ornithologists note that to keep afloat, the duck needs to frantically paddle his webbed feet under the water. The frenzied efforts to stay afloat are not visible. The outward tranquility of a duck exudes comfort and confidence, while in a frantic mode below the surface.
Ducks don’t just float. They can also fly, and usually in formation. The solo duck that is not part of a flock in flight is likely to be lost. The unattached duck romanticizes his solo status as a desirable goal — I am beholden to no one.
Still, the absence of a protective flock for the lame duck leaves him vulnerable. No one looks out for him… or even be too concerned about where he’s headed.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda