Has Your Leadership Peaked?

The last thing you want as a leader is to have your best days behind you.

But it happens all the time, long before a leader steps out of leadership.

The questions are how does it happen…and, more importantly, what can you do about it?

Has Your Leadership Peaked?

Sadly, you can’t launch into leadership at age 25 and simply expect to produce your best work, non-stop, for the next half-century. It rarely if ever works that way.

In fact, it’s a very real thing for leaders to run out of fresh strategy, new approaches, innovations and best ideas long before their time in leadership is over.

I have a theory…and it’s only a theory. I call it the theory of the 10-year run.

What does that mean? Well, here’s what I’m noticing, both within myself and around me as I see other leaders.

Most of us have about a decade of optimal leadership in us before we need to reinvent, reimagine or make a significant change.

I know that’s a big claim. And I’m sure there are exceptions. But hear me out, and see if it doesn’t resonate at some level.

I should also say that I believe in sustained, healthy leadership over a lifetime. I’m 100 percent in on that. I have zero plans to retire and I’ve also served the same people for almost 25 years.

But before we figure out how to reinvent yourself as a leader, see if you’ve spotted this pattern too.

EVER NOTICE THIS ABOUT MUSICIANS?

Look at musicians for a minute.

Most artists—even top artists and bands who have been together for decades—seem to have about a 10-year run in which all their hit music is produced.

Here are a few cases from the last five decades:

Simon and Garfunkel’s hit music was composed in less than a decade. When they split and Paul Simon went out on his own, his solo songs hit the charts from 1973 to 1986. Paul Simon is still producing music (he says his most recent is his best), but no one’s really listening to it anymore. Two 10-year runs.

The Doobie Brothers, Boston, Journey, Bon Jovi, New Order, Journey the Cure…roughly 10-year runs.

U2 broke through in 1984, disappeared from the charts after 1991, and came back with big hits from 2001-2004. Just over a decade when you add it up.

Coldplay has been going for 19 years, but their ascendancy into mainstream really happened from 2004 to 2014, with the odd pop up through to 2017. Just over a decade.

Run DMC, Blink 182, Incubus, Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews…all about 10-year runs in terms of music that charted.

Even the Rolling Stones, who have been performing for 55 years now (Oh. My. Gosh.)…well they extended the run to 15 years, from 1965 to about 1981. And since then…nothing really broke through.

Move closer to today, and you start to wonder whether 50 Cent, the Killers, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber will also succumb/have succumbed to the 10-year run pattern. They will be known for decades…but will their dominance end within the usual decade?

And sure, Beyonce is one of the biggest names in music, but she hasn’t had a solo top-10 hit in a decade either. Was that also a 10-year run?

Can you find exceptions? I’m sure you can…but it’s a pretty remarkable and consistent pattern once you see it.

Your creativity in a particular area has a shelf-life. And once you’ve passed that shelf-life, everything gets stale.

All of which brings us to my theory…why does all this creativity and innovation tend to be cradled within a decade?

STAGES OF THE 10-YEAR RUN

If you look at how most leaders progress, there’s a similar pattern.

If you know the Sigmoid curve, you’re familiar with this basic pattern.

Similarly, Les McKeown has traced out seven stages every business goes through, and Tony Morgan has developed a similar life cycle for churches.

My application is to the leader, and I think it’s fair to attach a timeline to it in the hopes that it will help you see yourself accurately and either a) prepare you for what’s next or b) move you out of a run.

Here are four phases that seem inevitable in leadership.

Phase 1: Innovation

We almost all start out in leadership by innovating. Sometimes it means launching a new venture, but even if you join an existing organization, in the early days you discover how to match your skill set to the job, create momentum and move the mission forward. Whether you’re creating something new or learning how to lead, you’re innovating.

Phase 2: Breakthrough

Breakthrough happens when you begin to hit your stride in leadership. You’re producing results, gaining momentum, generating fresh ideas, and you’re really starting to feel traction.

Phase 3: Peak

Peak happens when you hit you full stride. Your vision, skills and contribution to the team and mission are reaching their maximum potential. This is your sweet spot, and your ideas are not only new and fresh, but they’re really seeing their potential realized.

Phase 4: Stagnation

Unfortunately, the run we all imagine goes on forever usually doesn’t. What was new and innovative five years ago isn’t anymore. What really connected a few years ago is connecting less. You’re using the same strategies, tactics and approach, but you’re seeing declining results.

To make it all worse, your new ideas aren’t quite as good as your old ideas. And any attempt to bring back old ideas strikes younger leaders and other organizations with momentum as yesterday’s news. Meanwhile, you’re searching for your next breakthrough idea and it just gets harder and harder.

If you let this run a bit longer…you realize you’re running out of ideas.

Welcome to stagnation. The virtuous circle has turned into a vicious cycle.

So what happens next?

Well, sometimes leaders just keep running the old system, hoping for better results, which of course, never come. The definition of futility is, indeed, doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Others claim they change, but in reality, they just put a new coat of paint on a deeply rusty vehicle, which lasts about six months before all the problems associated with irrelevance bubble to the surface again.

So what should you do? Well, the wise leader reinvents himself or herself.

If you don’t reinvent yourself, renew your passion and update your strategy, you become irrelevant. And the culture never listens to leaders it deems irrelevant. Neither do you.

Rather than sliding into decline, you reinvent yourself.

Hey, I’m not trying to be discouraging…I’m just saying this is real.

And if you don’t face up to your challenges in leadership, everyone pays. You pay, but so does your organization. Massively.

5 SIGNS YOUR LEADERSHIP IS MOVING PAST PEAK

To drill down a little further, here are five quick signs your leadership is moving past peak.

1. The ideas that once flowed effortlessly are drying up.

2. You find it harder and harder to motivate yourself.

3. Your innovation for the future consists of bringing back ideas that used to work in the past.

4. You no longer have a clear picture for the future (like you used to).

5. You’re looking to outside ventures, side hustles or hobbies because the main task of leadership isn’t that exciting anymore.

These can be signs of burnout or other problems, but they can also signal that it’s time to reinvent yourself or move on.

All of this, of course, involves change.

Change is hard, but the alternative is harder. As Eric Shinseki says, if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

HERE’S HOW I’VE SEEN REINVENTION WORK IN MY LIFE

Reinvention changes a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.

When I look back on my leadership, I see a sub-conscious pattern. Every five to seven years, I throw a stick of dynamite into my leadership and rethink everything.

It’s not a conscious thing, but I think it’s been a helpful thing and one of the reasons I’ve been serving in the same place with the same people for 24 years.

I’m not saying every change was ideal or perfectly executed, but I am saying that change has been the fuel that’s kept things fresh, moving and growing.

Here are just a few examples from the church in which I serve:

Within five years of starting ministry at three small historic churches, we started growing, questioned everything, sold all three buildings and became one church with a new future, new name and new mission, completely refocusing on reaching unchurched people.

Three years after starting the new church, we moved into a new facility.

Two years later, we rethought our ministry model and moved into a simple church model designed around steps, not programs.

Two years after that, many of us restarted as Connexus Church, becoming a multisite non-denominational church.

Five years after that, we began building our broadcast location.

That same year, I transitioned out of the Lead Pastor role and into the role of Founding Pastor, ensuring succession was in place.

Three years after that, we added our third location.

And in my personal life in the last decade, here’s what change has looked like:

In 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017 I published books.

In 2012 I started blogging regularly.

In 2014 I launched a leadership podcast.

In 2016, 2017 and 2018 I launched new online courses.

In 2019, I’m writing my next book and dreaming up new adventures.

The common denominator in all that? Constant reinvention.

Surprisingly, I feel more alive and things are growing faster than I ever dreamed possible 24 years into this senior leadership journey.

Change is good.

And of course, as you know, unimplemented change eventually becomes regret. So change.

I’m not saying you have to engineer radical change like this (I admit, it’s pretty radical), but I am saying that doing the same thing over again will eventually suck the life out of you. It always does.

I’ve never felt more alive and excited for the future, and neither has our team.

3 THINGS REINVENTION REQUIRES

So what does reinvention require?

In my view, it’s going to take at least three things.

1. Prayer and Discernment
Reinvention starts on your knees. All of these changes have involved prayer, and several of them significant prayer and discernment.

The longer I lead, the less I trust my own judgment.

You need an inner circle of wise people who know God and who know you who can help you discern what your next best steps are. They will see gifting, strengths and weaknesses in you that you either miss or don’t see accurately.

Letting God and others speak into your next steps ensures you take better next steps.

2. Clarity on Mission and Methods
The mission never changes; methods do.

And the challenge for all leaders and organization is that we inevitably fall in love with the method more than the mission.

Current example. I love podcasting. I’m a consumer (I listen to dozens of podcasts) and a content creator in the field.

But podcasting is a method; it’s not the mission.

No, the mission behind my podcast is to bring great conversations to people to help them thrive in life and leadership.

There may be a day when I don’t podcast anymore. But the mission to help people thrive in life and leadership is a call I believe God has put on my life. You can bring great conversations in many ways, and in the future, there may be 100 ways we’ve never even thought of or invented yet to help people thrive in life and leadership. That’s what I have to be committed to. Podcasting is just currently a great vehicle for that.

Leaders who love the methods more than the mission are on a fast path to irrelevance.

3. Courage
More than anything, reinvention takes courage.

After all, it doesn’t take much courage to reinvent what someone else has done. It takes tremendous courage and imagination to reinvent yourself.

Reinvention takes humility.

Sometimes it means killing what you started.

Other times it means realizing you were wrong.

Usually, it means you tweak and change and reimagine and think through things again and again.

And all of that is very hard work. But it’s also rewarding work.

Courage is such a hard thing and such a beautiful thing. You need to have people around you who encourage you. Find them, hang on to them.

And I hope this encourages you to do what you know you need to do.

This article originally appeared here.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.