You Can’t Lead If You Can’t Stick Around: Developing Longevity as a Leader

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

What do Daniel Amos, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet all have in common?

Yes, they’re all men. Yes, they’re all successful businessmen. Yes, they’re all CEOs of their respective companies (AFLAC, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway).

But there’s one more thing that connects them. Can you guess what it is?

Each one has been the CEO of their company for over 20 years. Bezos and Buffet both founded their respective companies, while Amos followed in the footsteps of his father, Paul, who was AFLAC’s co-founder.

Twenty years is a long time for anyone to hold a job, regardless of what that job might be. But twenty years as a CEO is quite an achievement. According to a 2017 study by the Korn-Ferry Institute, the average tenure of a CEO is 8 years, depending upon the industry.

That means Amos, Bezos and Buffet have more than doubled the average. But they’re not alone—as reported by the website 247WallStreet, there are 30 CEOs on the S&P 500 who have held their position for at least 20 years.

What’s the secret to staying in a high-profile role like CEO for two decades?

It’s the same secret that keeps lower-profile leaders in long-term roles: character, competence, consistency. These three traits are the backbone of any leader’s longevity. They’re not difficult to understand, but they have proven challenging for many a leader to master.

What are these traits, and how can you develop them in order to sustain your leadership journey?

Character

This is the foundation of leadership. In my book, Developing the Leader Within You 2.0, this is one of the first chapters, because all leadership is rooted in the leader’s character. Character is the combination of a person’s values, beliefs, and actions. Simply put, character is walking the walk and talking the talk.

Recently, Inc.com posted a great story about Jeff Bezos’ character, and a lesson he learned after making his grandmother cry. While traveling with his grandparents as a child, Bezos got tired of his grandmother’s smoking, so he did some math in his head and proudly told his grandmother that every cigarette she smoked took two minutes off her life.

His grandmother burst into tears, and Bezos’ grandfather pulled the car over to the shoulder. He invited the young Bezos to follow him a short distance from the car, and the older man told his grandson something that stuck with Bezos to this day:

“Jeff, one day you’ll understand that It’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Leaders understand that who they are matters more than what they say or accomplish. No matter your age or stage, always seek to grow in the area of your character.

Competence

In leadership, competence means being well qualified or fit for the role. It is your ability as a leader to do good work that leads to productive results.

Competence is earned through:

  • Experience, which means showing up every day to do what’s required of you;
  • Growth, which means working to improve yourself intentionally;
  • Excellence, which means never settling for average;
  • Exceeding expectations, which means surprising people by going the extra mile;
  • Inspiration, which means understanding and connecting with your people.

Warren Buffet is a great example of competence. In his 2017 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffet revealed the fund has delivered an astounding 19.1% compounded annual gain in per share market value between 1965 and 2017. You don’t generate numbers like that without knowing what you’re doing—and then doing it very, very well.

Which leads to the final trait of leadership longevity.

Consistency

At the end of the day, consistency is the key to leading a long time. And consistency isn’t just measured in hours spent at your desk, or in days without incident on the factory floor. Consistency is measured by behaviors, temperament, and integrity as well.

People depend on leaders to not just show up but be present. They depend on leaders to follow through on promises made, deadlines assigned, and standards of excellence. Leaders are the metronome for the team’s performance—a steady beat by which everyone else can play.

Consistency is achieved daily. It’s not a trait that a leader acquires overnight, and it’s not a skill that can be developed in even a week or two. Consistency isn’t sexy, but it’s what compounds character and competence into the kind of performance that helps a leader stick around.

So how about you? If you had to pick one of the areas of character, competence, and consistency to spend time developing, which would it be and why?

Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s see if we can help one another grow into the kinds of leaders who make it long-term.

30 Comments

  1. Cynthia Odibeli on November 6, 2018 at 9:29 am

    It would be consistency for me, that is where I fall short the most. Thank you for the great article.

    • John Maxwell on November 6, 2018 at 11:23 am

      Thank you for reading!

    • Connie Koprowicz on November 7, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      Cynthia, I struggle with consistency as well. And I agree, this is a helpful article.

  2. Thushara Ranasinghe on November 6, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Competence can get you to the top but you need character to keep you there

    • John Maxwell on November 6, 2018 at 11:24 am

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Caleb Lamptey on November 6, 2018 at 9:54 am

    What should you do when you are doing your best to stay clean when it comes to character but people still misunderstand that for you not liking them?

    • John Maxwell on November 6, 2018 at 11:23 am

      Caleb–based on your comment, it seems that if there’s misunderstanding, it might be in the area of communication more than character. But to be sure, could you give an example to help clarify your question?

  4. Jose Melendez on November 6, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    It would be consistency, sometimes too many things to do caused to not comply and keep a rhythm that everyone else can play as you said.

  5. Ron on November 6, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    Early on in my career I was conditioned to never give up and to always strive for excellence. I entered the work force as a blue collar worker and now I am on the other side and have promoted up through several ranks. Key leaders in the organization have said I have done extremely well in my career and I should be proud of that. I am probably taking it wrong but it is almost like they implying that I have reached as far as I am going to go. I am proud my achievements and I could not have achieved them without personal sacrifice, a strong family support network and the dedicated efforts of the men and women that have worked for me. I am still striving for upward mobility and the competition is as stiff as it gets. I need to maximize my growth over the next two years. Acknowledging there is always room for improvement in all three areas, I believe honing my competence will help me get to the next level. Specifically I need executive communication skills, sometimes I feel like I am all over the place when I am trying to articulate an idea or plan. I also need to think more strategically. Thanks again

    • Dave C. on November 7, 2018 at 1:19 pm

      Ron – Thanks for sharing. It’s good that you have thought through what you believe is needed for next level growth. I had some executive communication training, and indeed it was helpful for myself and the others who had the opportunity. It would be worthwhile to seek out such coaching. I couldn’t begin to summarize all of the things included in what I went through, but one of them was prepared speech feedback….with taped video and class & coach feedback (thinking about posture, facial, how you hold or use your hands, tone, etc.). Another great part of the feedback was to look for all the little hallway moments to communicate and listen. It’s not always the big group that matters most. (Consistency of message and showing you care). Fully preparing for every planned interaction, whether one-on-ones or to a group. Write it down and plan it out. This is critical to keep you from being scattered and ensures you make the points you need to make. Even in impromptu settings, thinking through what you plan to say and making no more than 3 key points. May require summarizing or re-stating at end. Attempt to build your communication based upon a story or allegory that emphasizes your message. The receiver will remember that far longer and more vividly than remembering all the words you say.
      I hope that is helpful to you. I am glad I am writing this down as a good reminder of ideals I need to be practicing. Good luck with continued personal and career growth!

      • Itee U. on November 7, 2018 at 5:17 pm

        I have found the book by Dale Carnegie “The quick and easy way t effective speaking” very useful. The book highlights all the points you noted. Thanks for the article!

        • Ron on November 9, 2018 at 9:07 am

          Itee – I will look it up over the weekend. Thanks!

      • Ron on November 9, 2018 at 9:03 am

        Dave – appreciate the info – great tips all around, very helpful. When scripted, rehearsed, and behind a podium (my security blanket) I am a fairly competent speaker once I get over the fear and get rolling…in a small group or up on a stage without a script etc…or impromptu settings I sort of suck – need a much more polishing. Thanks again for the great tips!

  6. Ram Venkataraman on November 7, 2018 at 12:59 am

    Great article, John. None more important than the other, Love it!

  7. Adewale Coker on November 7, 2018 at 7:13 am

    Competence, as a leader your team members stand on your shoulder, and what makes them to keep coming back to you for support is your competency.

  8. Jennifer Seyler on November 7, 2018 at 9:59 am

    This is great! Consistency is something I need to work on, which really stems from me taking on too much.

  9. Bryan Jonathon on November 7, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Thank you so much! Can you expand on how creativity and innovation fit into each of the traits? Work on workforce development for small business (up to 500 employees) is challenging and seem to need some focus on these traits with respect to entrepreneurial creativity and innovation.

  10. Edwin R Rivera on November 7, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    I have to lean towards character as a means of vertical integration.. from a leaders perspective good or bad character is contagious, it trickles down so fast that by the time in comes back up is alive and embedded in the teams DNA.

  11. Voary on November 7, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    This is an excellent article, thank you so much for sharing.

  12. mGlennan on November 7, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    I love all of your points as I always do, John. You are amazing! For a CEO doing all of the above – everything right and is truly successful but not fulfilled, how does a CEO know when it is time to depart the position of CEO. Is this something that is intuitive or are there “benchmarks” or signs along the way that you can speak to? or one of your outstanding publications you can refer me to? Thank you so much.

  13. diana b on November 7, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    my weakness is consistentcy. i get stagnant or i believe i do after 3 to 4 years. its reworking the same projects to get better results because of business changes. just really hard to be passionate about working on the same thing over and over

  14. Darrel on November 8, 2018 at 2:39 am

    John – a great read and high value for me here in South Africa. Listening to Donald Trump answer press questions post mid terms last night on CNN makes me feel that he should read the article once a day forever into the future . For instance on CHARACTER – mostly very clever,hardly ever kind, COMPETENCE – not much credibility here as he is not inspirationally great, compared to Mandela, CONSISTENCY – how does his temperament manifest leadership excellence ?

    Thank you

    • Jason Brooks on November 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

      Hi Darrel! Thanks for your comment and your challenging question. President Trump is an interesting leader–with many people, he doesn’t fit their expectations of leadership. As you pointed out, the character-competence-consistency matrix John presented could be used to highlight some of President Trump’s struggles—yet, by the same matrix there are victories that could be highlighted. All leaders can be viewed or judged according to the perspective of others.

      While President Trump may not have the inspirational tone of Nelson Mandela, he does have a set of skills that the American people found valuable in their leader at this stage of history: his ability to negotiate and a willingness to stand firm against pushback. Those negotiation skills—keeping people off balance, pushing hard on the front end, quickly coming to terms and moving on to the next opportunity—make him stand apart from what many people call “presidential.”

      Candidly, it will take time to effectively judge his leadership—which is true of all leaders. The challenge is not to judge him, but rather to continue holding up high standards of leadership so that the picture will be clear in the future. Thank you for pressing in on this, and for taking the time to ask such a great question.

  15. Eastwood Yeboah on November 8, 2018 at 2:47 am

    It will be consistency
    Because that is what makes you a great leader.
    And its that which gives life to character and competence

  16. Vanessa Sylvester on November 8, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Thank you for this article!
    What do you do to assess and maintain your character at all times?

  17. MGrove on November 8, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    Our Leadership Team just read and discussed “The Law of Solid Ground” yesterday…and this article parallels! We have been using 21 Irrefutable Laws over the last 1 1/2 years to expand our capacity as leaders. Love your work, and truly embraced and committed my life work with your laws (which I can quote and articulate! LOL) Hire me someday? :o) Thank you! @AsstSupt_SGASD

  18. Susan O Holtzman on November 9, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    Consistency in leadership dosent necesarily mean that the leader won’t change her mind, or take a different direction, it means that the leadership consistently support the efforts of those around them. That the leadership will consistently have your back, listen when you speak, and support the company’s mission.

  19. Rachel on November 12, 2018 at 10:56 am

    You mentioned that this is been notable in 3 men however would you say this has been harder for women to achieve or doesn’t matter? I am currently on maternity leave for 3 months and thinking as a leader in my current position I may fail with consistency during this time period.

  20. Eleanor Maria Concepcion Monforte Tejano on November 13, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    I always want to be the metronome do others can play along with me…..and play it grand.

  21. Mitch from Lessonly on November 20, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Hey John, just want to say thank you for sharing these thoughts. At Lessonly, we constantly stress that every single employee in our company is a leader, not just those at the top. So, I think it’s worth saying that everyone looking to lead (defined as inspiring others to grow and perform) regardless of position in an org structure should take these principles to heart and consider the longevity of their time in their current role. Thanks again!

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.