4 Keys to Long-Haul Leadership

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Instead of being a flash in the pan, learn how to develop into a leader who is in it for the long haul.

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 to massive layoffs and plant closings. The short-term profits would soar and so would the value of the company.

He led Scott Paper with that ruthless behavior. Thousands of employees lost their jobs. Plants were closed. But it seemed like he had 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 began to become clear. He would become CEO of Sunbeam in 1996. He took measures to make the company profitable at all costs, even if they were unethical or illegal. He eventually led the company to bankruptcy.

Short-term leaders and Long-haul Leadership

Sometimes, the metaphor “flash in the pan” is used to describe leaders like Dunlap. They appear to be great leaders, but that greatness is illusionary. Over time, the true value of the leader is made clear.

On the other extreme are long-haul leaders. These are leaders who, most often, do not begin with great recognition and fanfare. Over time, however, the greatness of their leadership becomes evident. Some will remark that the leader “came out of nowhere.” Such is rarely the case. True great leaders for 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 begins to show. 

My research team and I have examined leaders and their attributes for nearly thirty years. These long-haul leaders especially intrigued us and how they built their careers ultimately to become leaders of renown. In all of them, we found four dominating traits.

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. “I refuse to work at any job,” one leader told us, “unless I can be totally sold out to what I’m doing.”

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at http://www.thomrainer.com

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  • Juan Cruz Jr.

    I don’t know of any long-haul leaders. It is shame that we do still have “leaders” that have the pride and arrogance shown by Al Dunlap. I do know of many leaders that exhibit most if not all of the 4 key points. I myself sometimes marvel when I get a compliment from one of my employees for my leadership. It’s then that I understand that leadership is a process, a journey, and not something that just happens overnight.

  • MyoungSr

    If we (the Church and Christian community) could just re-define the word “Leader” or
    “Leadership” into the word “SERVANT” and transfer the intimations, definitions and conatations to that of a servant, we might be better able to model what God meant when He said that we are to be DOULOS – SERVANTS, not ‘good leaders’.

    Then perhaps we would do all things as unto the Lord, thereby serving the needs of this world around us in a positive, direct and productive way. (Which does NOT mean being a doormat or a wishy-washy person, compromising our beliefs or convictions to satisfy the world around us, but being a Servant like Jesus. It gets the job done the right way simply because it is right!)

    • J. E. G.

      I would just kike to agree with you. It seems most in our day want to drive the flock rather than shepard.

    • Eugene


  • http://About.me/marcmillan Marc Millan

    Excellent post about a topic well discussed in the New Testament, which is derived from our ability to serve others. Long Haul leaders walk at Gods pace, they aren’t concerned about impressing others but seek God’s approval in all they do.
    Jim Collins also addresses this type character in his books “how the mighty fall” and ‘Good to great”

    • DaveEkstrom

      Yeah. I was really encouraged by “Good to Great.” My personality is about as exciting as yesterday’s toast but can God use me? Yes, if I have passion, character, discipline. Forget the “Great Leader” cult stuff. Let’s be faithful and disciplined. Let’s have a clear mission and stick to it. Who cares about “The Leader”?

  • porky

    Al sounds a little like Mitt.

  • DaveEkstrom

    Rainer always has good stuff and this was just another example.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bobby.cooper.9693 Bobby Cooper

    Good stuff!