Big shoes to fill

IS THE MENTION of shoe size appropriate when accepting the leadership position of a high-profile listed company? Of course. It is almost obligatory to project both modesty in being the “chosen one” and gratefulness to the predecessor for the newly appointed to acknowledge that he has “big shoes to fill.” More so, if the faintly beaming former chief still retains the power to move the pieces in this chess game.

This reference to big shoes to fill hints at “game-changing” accomplishments of the predecessor (no details need to be given) and the daunting challenge of following his footsteps. This is all metaphorical, of course. It does not matter that in fact the successor is much taller, and has obviously bigger feet, and already wearing bigger shoes anyway. It gets complicated when you take these things literally.

The new leader needs to walk in his own shoes moving forward. He needs to invoke some new objectives like customer delight or new niche markets to chase, to walk his own path. It’s a way of blazing new trails and shucking off other people’s shoes.

Only in succession plans do references to “big shoes to fill” ever come up. In politics where term limits are fixed and succession is bestowed by elections, inaugural speeches seldom refer to predecessors and their oversized shoes. Even in monarchies where succession is ordained, there is no mention of footwear. In England, for instance, the incumbent wears heels, and her designated successor, if he gets to sit, can’t refer to shoes other than his.

Shoes as paradigms of status have done a bit of walking.

We refer to wealthy people as “well heeled.” This is probably due to the number of shoes they have so that they can discard those that have been scuffed at the heels too much. So, their opposite number are those that are “down at the heels” from too much walking in just one pair of shoes. Are those who are barefoot in a worse situation? Yes… unless they’re walking on the beach.

Isn’t the symbol of unbridled corruption the discovered shoe closet of the former First Lady? The thousand or so shoes, many still in their boxes, have become a cliche for extravagance. In the musical on her life, Here lies love, there was intentionally no song alluding to her shoes. This would have been too predictable.

In this time of subliminal campaigning, advisers ask their candidates to address the poor, consisting the majority of voters. They counsel — Put yourselves in their shoes. This image of empathy may miss the point, as slippers are the more common footwear for the underprivileged. It is no wonder that one late mayor and cabinet secretary wore rubber slippers to relate to his constituents. The same symbol was adopted by his widow, though not that successfully.

Glitzy places need not post a sign on their doors banning slippers and those who wear them from entering their premises. They will however allow the absence of socks as part of footwear, as this style in the ’80s somehow attached to the wealthy eccentric exuding radical chic. Maybe this sockless look has since lost its appeal from complaining foot masseuses. More acceptable now is the kooky sock. Or the more ubiquitous kicks.

Of course, this whole discussion on shoes and what they symbolize have become slightly irrelevant with the pandemic. Staying at home in slippers or barefooted have made shoe metaphors a bit passe. Still, shoes, in parties and meetings in person, will surely come back with a vengeance. And then we’re back to stepping up the tempo.

Even as we studiously avoid names in our pieces, there are those who can feel alluded to, and not in a favorable light. The lack of definite attributions saves us from digital word searchers and news clippers who work for the rich and famous. Also, there are anyway many who skip these pages for more sensational fare served by more biased opinion mongers and spokespersons. There is of course the one trying out which shoes are best for running. He’s still looking for the right shoelaces.

Anyway, there is a piece of shoe advice too for those who are put off by vague allusions. If the shoe fits, wear it. And don’t forget the socks.

Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

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