The data shows that most CEOs, in schools and elsewhere, do not make it past year five in leadership in their organization. The median tenure of CEOs across many industries is five years (with turnover rates increasing), and data on Christian school leadership shows the majority of heads of school serve five years or less. This begs the question, what happens in year four of leadership? Is there an organizational leadership equivalent to the seven-year itch in marriages? (Oddly enough, research suggests this “itch” in marriages happens earlier than seven years, with divorce rates peaking by—surprise!—year four).
This data is not descriptive of every leader’s experience, nor is it prophetic (as in, leaders everywhere should expect challenges in their fourth year). However, these trends are significant and are certainly worth proactive consideration. First, let’s consider some possible reasons for the fourth-year challenge—both organizational and leader-related—and then ways leaders can anticipate and address this challenge.
Possible Reasons: Organizational Factors
Continuing the analogy of organizational leadership to marriage, by year four the “honeymoon” period for a new leader may be coming to an end. The realities of the leader and the organization “living together” are beginning to sink in, just like they would in a marriage—one person constantly leaves dishes in the sink, while the other forgets to gas up the car until it’s nearly on empty; in the school context, the leader may not respond to parent emails promptly as some may expect, or a board member may inappropriately entertain parent feedback on school policies at the sidelines of football game. If not addressed in a timely fashion—with ample grace and a 1 Corinthians 13 mindset—grievances and annoyances on both sides can build up. This is further complicated by the fact that “familiarity builds contempt”—in other words, extensive knowledge of someone or something can lead to a loss of respect over time. One leader described this to me as “the gloves come off” in year four, when constituents no longer communicate with kindness and respect, but rather feel free to voice their opinions and concerns without reservation (and in some cases, without civility).
In addition, the school lifecycle can present challenges to leader tenure. Within any given four-year period at a school, there is certain to be turnover of staff and likely a roll-off of board members and officers. This means that key voices who supported the hiring of the leader in year one—and have been the leader’s biggest cheerleaders through the first three years—are gone by year four. To this list we can add the near certainty of a community-level crisis in any given four-year period: from a global pandemic to a contentious presidential election, to a major student discipline controversy to a budget crunch, crises will test the leader’s skills and the resilience of school constituents alike. If relational cracks are already starting to show, crises can cause them to fracture further.
Finally, the importance of the organization’s board of trustees cannot be overstated. Because the board is the only entity that can hire and fire the CEO, the longevity of the CEO ultimately rests on the board’s shoulders. Since the vast majority of CEO terminations or resignations are not due to moral, ethical, or legal failure on the part of the CEO, most often things that go “wrong” could have been addressed or fixed at an earlier point. While the pathway to CEO departure is not always clearcut or simple, it is highly related (positively or negatively) to the board’s actions. For example, how does the board communicate priorities as well as take input on vectors for change from the CEO? How does the board handle negative feedback around the CEO’s performance? Is the board truly supporting the CEO’s leadership and growth, including helping problem-solve and releasing resources to support the CEO? The answers to these questions cannot be left to chance or whim. Boards need to ensure they are regularly and professionally trained on their roles and responsibilities, to ensure they are supporting the CEO’s success to the fullest extent. The turnover rate for CEOS suggests that board training should be held frequently—perhaps even annually.
Many of the organizational factors just described fall out of the leader’s direct control, which can be discouraging and disheartening. This doesn’t mean that leaders are completely powerless, however. As Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl explained, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” And the Apostle Paul instructs us in Romans 12:18 (ESV), “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This leads us to consider the factors within leaders’ control that can contribute to organizational “peace.”
Possible Reasons: Leader Factors
The first factor for leaders to consider is their organizational knowledge. By year four, most leaders have a good sense of what is working well and what needs improvement, as well as which constituents are contributing to the forward movement of the school versus those who are paddling backward (or even actively drilling holes in the boat). Where this knowledge becomes dangerous is when it instills a sense of overconfidence or absolute certainty in a course of action. While leaders know a lot by year four, they can’t possibly know everything. In his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, organizational psychologist Adam Grant points to the existence of an inflection point where growth in our knowledge and skills is quickly (and dangerously) outpaced by our sense of confidence. Just as they did during their first year, leaders need to continue asking questions, allowing time for personal reflection, seeking good and varied counsel, and avoiding making inferences or jumping to conclusions without considering all possible viewpoints. Continuously adopting the posture of a humble learner is a lifelong skill for a leader—regardless of years of service.
The second mistake to avoid is inflating or deflating one’s sense of success. No matter how spectacular leaders’ achievements are in their first four years, those achievements are short-term at best. Similarly, leaders should avoid thinking they’ve accomplished very little toward significant cultural change, which simply takes more time. Four years is not enough to transform organizational culture thoroughly, position the organization for decades of financial stability, or cement a reputation as the organization’s most gifted and visionary leader in its history. In his book Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives, management consultant Ron Carucci identifies new CEOs’ fatal mistake as failing to transition their change horizons from short to long (i.e. from two years, to six to ten years). True organizational success is not a sprint. In fact, it’s not even a marathon. Organizational leadership is a multigenerational relay race, which requires not just personal endurance but also the cooperation of many people working together effectively over the long haul. While quick wins are important organizationally and culturally, leaders need to maintain the same posture of humility (Romans 12:3) and dependence on God (Proverbs 3:5) with which they started in their role.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s likely that leaders are beginning to touch the organization’s “sacred cows” by year four. In other words, they are beginning to challenge long-standing customs or traditions, whether knowingly or not. Crucially, while the leader likely views deep organizational change as a logical process to be managed, constituents are more likely to view this change as a threat to what they love and cherish about the organization. In the The Human Side of School Change, organizational psychologist Robert Evans points to human factors as the ones that most frequently undermine school reform efforts. Pioneering workplace psychologist Harry Levinson explained one possible reason for this, when he claimed that “all change is loss, and all loss requires mourning.” And in Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change, Tod Bolsinger of Fuller Seminary explains that organizational sabotage is not the act of evil people, but rather the normal and expected response of human beings who are fearful in the face of change (in fact, Bolsinger asserts that leaders haven’t truly led until they’ve “survived the sabotage”). While sacred cows may clearly be an impediment to organizational growth, leaders need to resist being task-minded in slaying them. Instead, they need to put people first—remembering and being sensitive to the power of emotions, moving more slowly than they’d often like (in order to leave time and space for people to process change), soliciting and listening carefully to feedback, and continuing to prioritize relationships with the same vim and vigor as in their first year.
Of course, a combination of these factors is at play throughout a leader’s tenure, no matter how long or short. Thus whether a leader is in year one, four, or fifteen, there are a few principles of leadership that remain constant, but which may need some extra attention while rounding the bend from year four to five.
- Relationships, relationships, relationships. A leader’s tasks and priorities may change from year to year, but the centrality of forming and maintaining positive relationships never changes. Unlike a capital campaign, a curricular review, and an accreditation cycle, relationship building never ends. Moreover, the trust of board members, faculty and staff, parents, and students can never be taken for granted. Thomas J. Watson of IBM said, “The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy.” Building and maintain trusting relationships needs to be the number one priority of leaders, regardless of year of service. And when it comes to their relationship with the CEO, the same is true for boards.
- Highlight the positive. To continue the marriage analogy, it’s important to highlight the positives of the other and not always focus on the negative. For leaders, this starts with reminding yourself of what attracted you to the organization in the first place. Every organization has strengths to be celebrated and that can be leveraged to effect change. When the temptation for disillusionment comes, remember that no place is perfect. Start by practicing gratitude for the good things God has planted and done in the organization. This doesn’t mean taking a pollyannish view, but rather committing to view the organization and its people as God views them—from a posture of 1 Corinthians 13 love, and acting with their best in mind.
- Overcommunicate. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the unfortunate truth is that people can’t resist filling a communication void with misinformation conjured from their own fears and insecurities. This means leaders need to overcommunicate, assume silence in a relationship is never a good thing, and realize that people have not necessarily heard something just because the leader said it. Although it takes precious time that we often feel we don’t have, high-touch communication (in-person, phone call, hand-written note) is always best.
- Don’t believe your own hype. Proverbs 16:18 promises, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Leaders are frequently praised and thanked publicly, and the temptation can be great to take positive feedback a little too seriously. As an antidote, leaders need to cultivate humility constantly. To this end, a mentor or coach can help, as can an informal advisory board (provided it isn’t just made up of the leader’s cheerleaders). According to Scripture, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them” (Proverbs 16:2a); for this reason, feedback should always be viewed as a gift—welcome or not, when someone takes the time to share their perspective, there’s always something we can learn.
- Apologize where you can. In leadership, it’s impossible to make it through a day without making a mistake (whether big or small). Put simply, leaders are human. Most relational conflict is complex and misunderstandings can happen easily. In conflict, it’s important to find something you can “own” and for which you can apologize—even if it’s something small (i.e., not responding quickly enough to an email, misunderstanding the tone or intention of a comment, or simply not being proactive enough in maintaining a relationship). When leaders own their part of a conflict, it demonstrates humility and a valuing of the other person. It also lays the groundwork for getting to the heart of the issue. Of course, once leaders have apologized for something, they need to be genuine—by setting a course for change, delivering on that change, and welcoming feedback.
- Lean into prayer. There is simply no way for a leader to be all-knowing about the concerns, pitfalls, and challenges of their organization and communities. But we can take heart, because there is one who knows—God sees and understands every individual and interaction in our organizations. To avail ourselves of God’s vantage point as we lead, we need to pray and to ask for wisdom (James 1:5) continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Individual prayer is essential, but corporate prayer is also powerful as it builds community through vulnerability, trust, and shared reliance on God. Every leader and board should have prayer teams that meet regularly to pray for God’s heart and will, for the organization and each other.
Of course, these practices offer no guarantees. Sometimes we will face “necessary endings” in leadership (see the book of the same name by clinical psychologist Henry Cloud), at which point the wisest course of action is to part ways as amicably as possible. Even Paul and Barnabas disagreed and parted ways (Acts 15:36-39), despite Barnabas’s being a “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36, 11:23). We can trust that God will use difficult situations to refine leaders and the organizations they serve (Romans 8:28), regardless of whether the result is separation or not. As mentioned earlier, leaders are only responsible for the “so far as it depends on you” part (Romans 12:18). All else we must entrust to God.
For leaders finishing the honeymoon phase and staring down the winding lane of long leadership, Jesus’s admonishment to the church in Ephesus can offer encouragement:
“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:3-5a).
Being patient, bearing up, and not growing weary is commendable, especially given the challenges of modern leadership. But these virtues are useless if we fail to remember our “first love”—above all for God, then for people, and then for our organization’s mission. For leaders, doing the things we did at first can include prioritizing relationships, focusing on the positive, being humble, persisting in prayer, taking a longer view, and communicating well. These works may not only help leaders return to the love they had at first, but also position them better to overcome any year of challenge—including year four.
About the Author
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at Association of Christian Schools International, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus senior fellow and is the co-author or editor of numerous books on Christian education, including Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools and MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @LynnSwaner1.