I was initially hesitant when asked to share my thoughts on leadership.
A quick Google search will yield thousands of entries—books, articles, online classes, coaching services, conferences, even tropical retreats—devoted to the topic. Whether themed (“servant leadership”) or specialized (“Leadership Lessons From Abe Lincoln”), there is a long list of approaches and philosophies to explore.
Executive SummaryWhat happens when the turnaround is accomplished, the merger done and the new product launched?
Leadership is about more than navigating through these special situations, Tony Kuczinski, the recently retired CEO of Munich Re US, reminds his peers in the industry. “Effective leaders never stop challenging themselves and their teams…I believe the key to long-lasting success as a leader lies in the individual’s personal commitment to staying highly motivated, actively engaged and accountable,” he writes.
Kuczinski retired from his positions as CEO of Munich Re US P&C Companies and of Munich Re US Holding Inc. on Dec. 31, 2022. As he stepped down and moved on to a strategic adviser role, he reflected on the lessons of his career at the request of Carrier Management. Having served as a leader at Munich Re for more than three decades, he contemplates executive longevity and the question of why some leaders endure in their roles.
Looking back over my three decades in various corporate leadership positions, I wondered if I had anything meaningful to contribute that hadn’t already been said before. But when several colleagues pointed out that my tenure as president and CEO of Munich Re US P&C Companies had lasted about three times longer than the average for a CEO in the United States, I started thinking about other senior executives who have been trusted to lead for the long haul. What separates them from the rest?
Effective leaders never stop challenging themselves and their teams. Whether you are building your career in a new leadership role or have held the top position for a significant period of time, I believe the key to long-lasting success as a leader lies in the individual’s personal commitment to staying highly motivated, actively engaged and accountable. The journey requires heavy doses of discipline, humility, self-awareness and energy.
When at the helm of a company in turnaround mode or launching a major new product or overseeing a large merger, leaders rarely need to be concerned with challenging themselves or their teams. The work itself is the challenge. Typically, there is high energy throughout the organization. But what happens once that goal is achieved? After the excitement of setting up a strong team, establishing ambitious goals, fostering a meaningful culture and eventually experiencing the fruits of that labor, it is far too easy to lapse into cruise control mode, allowing energy levels to drop and stagnation to slowly creep in over time.
How can leaders avoid falling into this common trap of complacency and instead thrive during the journey? Here are some thoughts I found helpful upon reflection.
Imagine Your Ideal Legacy
How do you want to be remembered?
When first starting out in a leadership role, perpetuity may be the last thing on your mind. So many projects await—multiple fires to put out, divisions to turn around, people to meet. There’s so much to learn. But early on, it is important to determine what you want to ultimately leave behind and how you can achieve that goal.
Some business leaders employ fear tactics and choose dominance as their style. They literally structure their organizations around themselves. They place themselves not just “at the top” but dangerously smack dab in the center of everything.
In my experience, the best leaders build up the organization by building up their people. These leaders are always mindful of the impact they have on individual careers. They concentrate on mentoring, coaching and developing others into strong (future) leaders. Their proud legacy becomes a successful, resilient and sustainable organization.
Cultivate an Environment of Open Discussion; Avoid Group Think
“When everyone is thinking the same way, no one is really thinking”—the old saying is at the heart of long-lasting leadership. I would add, “If everyone is thinking the same way you are, why would they need you as a leader?”
Surround yourself with people who bring a variety of perspectives. Nurture an atmosphere that invites respectful debate. Encourage your teams to question you, each other and themselves. This ensures ego doesn’t get in the way. Set the tone by always keeping an open mind and never penalizing disagreement during the discussion phases of decision-making.
Leaders who effectively create this environment prioritize good communication. You may have the most wonderful, innovative ideas swimming around in your head, but if you can’t convey your thoughts, you’ll be a team of one. Part of being a strong leader is knowing when to listen and when to speak, whether addressing individuals, specific teams or the broader organization.
Consider Each Set of Circumstances Individually
Leadership is situational.
Different moments require different approaches. Every leader has a unique style, but effective leaders always look at context. They analyze each situation and make decisions based on that time, that place and those specific details, or they can become static. I’ve seen the unfortunate results when the default thinking becomes, “Look at all our past successes! We did this and it worked before, so let’s keep doing it.”
Be on guard for even a hint of a “been there, done that” attitude. Never assume that taking the same steps as you have in the past will yield the same results, either positive or negative. Remember that proposal that didn’t make sense two years ago? Well, it might be the right choice now because certain factors have changed. Approach each issue with fresh eyes. Start with a hypothesis and do all the work to validate or refute that premise. Always look at multiple inputs—past experience is very important but should not be the only factor. Decisions should be largely based on the direction you are heading but balanced by historical perspective.
Situational awareness and effective communication go hand in hand. Different approaches may need to be taken depending on the message, whether delivering good news or explaining tough decisions. Long-lasting leaders adapt their communication style and never assume that a technique that was employed in the past or with a different audience is the right choice, even in a seemingly similar situation.
Establish a Mindset of Learning, Engagement and Communication
Leadership is a journey that requires continuous learning, energy and improvement.
Nothing zaps energy more than coasting or operating out of an echo chamber. This is true for individuals, organizations and leaders alike. When swamped with high-pressure meetings, frequent travel and a whole host of obligations, it may become difficult to find time to meaningfully interact with people outside your own circle.
Long-lasting leaders move these activities near the top of their lists and encourage their teams to do the same. They recognize the wisdom of engaging with and learning from a wide variety of people from different industries and with different areas of expertise. This interaction might be through direct conversations, reading books and journals, industry events, or tuning into podcasts, all with the goal of attaining a broad knowledge base.
Long-lasting leaders also prioritize listening to a wide variety of people within their own organizations. And that isn’t once a year at the company holiday party or during a semi-annual floor-by-floor walk-through. The best leaders develop authentic relationships with people at all levels and do so in a transparent manner that doesn’t undermine managers.
An “open door” policy is only beneficial if employees feel comfortable walking through that door. By forming trusted connections, leaders are granted a window into the pulse of their organization, including emerging trends and potential risks.
Practice Regular Reflection
Leadership requires humility and self-criticism.
I’ve heard some actors state they don’t read reviews for fear they may become paralyzed by the negative comments, but business leaders cannot afford to ignore what their detractors are saying. This is a key aspect of honest reflection. Once again, keeping an open mind is paramount. Is there anything valuable to be gleaned from those detractors, even if their comments are unpleasant to consider?
Perform regular gut checks. Are you effectively steering yourself and your teams from sliding into group think and complacency? Keeping the energy level high enough? Communicating with the right cadence?
Once you’ve engaged in honest self-reflection, the most important trait for a strong leader is the ability to course-correct. You definitely will need to do this several times along the way when you are a long-tenured leader. While well-established strategic direction should not change very often, the operating environment is always fluid, and this in turn could require tactical shifts in order to execute your strategy.
My best advice for anyone who aspires to long-lasting leadership: Never stop listening, learning, caring, communicating, mentoring, reflecting and being willing to change.