Four keys to long-haul leadership

Feb. 14, 2013 | by Thom Rainer

He was once regarded as one of the best business leaders in the world. At the end of his career, he was disgraced and, by some measures, considered one of the worst business leaders of all time.

Al Dunlap believed that the primary goal of a company was to make money for its shareholders. To that end, he would lead an organization with the organizational plan of implementing massive layoffs and closing numerous plants. Those steps would cause short-term profits to soar, and so would the value of the company.

Dunlap led Scott Paper with that sort of ruthless behavior. Not only did thousands of employees lose their jobs, plant closings adversely affected numerous communities. Yet it seemed like Dunlap had achieved the formula for success when he sold Scott Paper to Kimberly-Clark for $2.8 billion and walked away with his own $100 million golden parachute.

Over time, Dunlap’s true colors emerged. He took the reins as CEO of Sunbeam in 1996. As with Scott Paper, he implemented measures to make the company profitable at all costs, even if they were unethical or illegal. However, instead of scoring success, he eventually led the company into bankruptcy.

Short-term leaders

Sometimes the metaphor, "flash in the pan," is used to describe leaders like Dunlap. They appear to be great leaders, but this short-term assessment proves an illusion. Over time, the value of leaders focused on the short-term to the detriment of the long-term becomes clearer.

On the other extreme are long-haul leaders. These are leaders whose tenures don’t launch with any great recognition or fanfare. Over time, however, the greatness of their leadership surfaces. Some will remark that the leader "came out of nowhere." Rarely is that the case. Leaders who shine over the long haul have been in formation for years. They work hard but rarely get recognition for a season. At some point, however, the value of their leadership shows.?

For nearly 30 years, my research team and I have examined leaders and their attributes. Those I describe as "long haul" leaders have proved especially intriguing. We wanted to know more specifics about how they built their careers to become leaders of renown. Taking a closer look helped us to see the presence of four dominating traits in such great individuals:

Key #1: Passion

The long-haul leaders continually made choices to work in areas where they had passion for their jobs. They made tough decisions at times to take lower-paying jobs so they could follow their dreams. Passionate workers become passionate leaders. Passionate leaders often become great leaders. One leader told us, "I refuse to work at any job unless I can be totally sold out to what I’m doing."

Key #2: Work ethic

Because they were passionate about their work, long-haul leaders had a strong work ethic. They did what was necessary to get the job done. They were not clock punchers. Because they so loved their work, they rarely saw their vocation as work. Instead, it was fun and rewarding.

Key #3: Persistence

Some of the stories of long-haul leaders are nothing short of amazing. They were the leaders who stuck with their passion when others had thrown in the towel. They measured success in increments instead of one big fanfare. They understood that success is sometimes three steps forward and two steps backwards.

Key #4: Humility

Long-haul leaders experience trials. They at times endure failures. They are often disregarded before they gain any recognition. In those times they learn humility. They learn what is like to be last and hungry. So when they do have their moment of breakout leadership, they accept the rewards with humility and gratitude. They are the antithesis of "entitled" leaders.

Your stories

Do you know any long-haul leaders? Do you know any "entitled" leaders, like the variety I wrote about in my most recent blog in this space? What have you learned about them? What have you applied to your life as a leader? I would love to hear your stories.


Thomas Rainer is the president and CEO LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books.



Topics: Discipleship , Leadership , Ministry , Research , Teaching Resources , Vision

Thom Rainer / Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of 24 books, including his most recent release, “I Will: Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian.” His 2013 book, “I Am a Church Member,” recently passed the one million mark in sales.

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