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.
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 hardly saw their vocation as work. 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 given up. 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.
What Are Your Stories of Leadership?
Do you know any long-haul leaders? Do you know any entitled leaders? What have you learned about them? What have you applied to your life as a leader? I would love to hear your stories.