Breaking news: Warren Buffett is going to die. Seriously, he is.
Maybe not this year or next (hopefully not), but someday. And given that he's 81, probably sooner than most CEOs.
And when Warren Buffett dies, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, will not be the same, no matter who he names as a successor. Like Steve Jobs and a handful of other CEOs and visionaries, Warren Buffett is unique. No one can replace him.
Those are facts that anyone who follows Buffett or Berkshire Hathaway should fully accept. The only question is, "when?"
But Buffett's revelation yesterday that he has early-stage prostate cancer appears to have prompted more people to suddenly focus on Buffett's mortality, as though this is somehow news. Buffett himself, to his credit, has been completely upfront about this fact of life for years. So it's always startling when people don't appear to have listened.
Fortunately, as Buffett also said yesterday, the prognosis for those with his cancer is excellent. And Berkshire Hathaway shareholder Whitney Tilson was quick to point out that the expected lifespan for a healthy 81-year old is a dozen years. So, hopefully, Buffett will be able to lead Berkshire for another decade, or longer.
In the meantime, Buffett is making a smart decision in not naming the successor he has already picked.
The day he names that successor, he himself will become a lame duck. The successor, meanwhile, will stop focusing on the job he or she is doing and start focusing on the job he or she is going to get. And the other candidates for the job, who also have important responsibilities, will know that they have lost out and, possibly, quit.
So, Buffett is handling his own mortality exactly the way he should.
As he freely and quickly admits, he'll die someday. When he does--or earlier, if he chooses to step down--leadership of Berkshire will pass to a successor he has already picked. And, no, when Berkshire's leadership changes, it won't be the same.
(As Buffett would probably also be quick to suggest, Berkshire might actually be better. But this seems unlikely. Buffett really is a one-of-a-kind.)