Has Your Leadership Peaked? The Theory of the 10 Year Run.

ten year run

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?

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.

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. Click To Tweet

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 ten-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% 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.

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

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 ten-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 ten year runs.

The Doobie Brothers, Boston, Journey, Bon Jovi, New Order, Journey, the Cure…roughly ten 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 ten 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 ten-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 ten hit in a decade either. Was that also a ten-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?

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

Stages Of The Ten 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 innovate 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.

If you don't face up to your challenges in leadership, everyone pays. You pay, but so does your organization. Massively. Click To Tweet

5 Signs Your Leadership Is Moving Past Peak

To drill down a little further, here are 5 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.

If you want to go a little deeper on whether your ideas are still fresh or whether it’s time to reinvent or move on, here are two posts that might help.

7 Signs You May Have Peaked as a Leader

7 Signs It’s Time to Leave

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.

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. Click To Tweet

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 5-7 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 5 years of starting ministry at 3 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.

5 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.

Unimplemented change eventually becomes regret. So change. Click To Tweet

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.

Reinvention changes a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

It doesn’t take much courage to reinvent what someone else has done. It takes tremendous courage and imagination to reinvent yourself. Click To Tweet

If Finding the Time Seems Overwhelming…Some Help

Many of us feel overwhelmed all the time, so finding time to reinvent yourself can seem impossible.

Well, maybe not. It’s very possible…and I’d love to help you get on top of your everything so you can get your life and leadership back.

If you’re trying to find the time for what matters most in life, my High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Carey’s course was the perfect way for our team to prepare for the new year. Our team, both collectively and individually, took a fresh look at maximizing our time and leadership gifts for the year ahead. I highly recommend this leadership development resource for you and your team.” Jeff Henderson, Gwinnett Church, Atlanta Georgia

“A lot of books and programs make big promises and cannot deliver but this is not one of them. I have read so many books and watched videos on productivity but the way you approach it and teach is helpful and has changed my work week in ministry in amazing ways.” Chris Sloan, Tanglewood Church, Kingston, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell, Invitation Church, Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Red Rock Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

Some Hope

The good news is that leaders who reinvent themselves usually find a deep joy and sustained passion for the long haul.

I don’t know why musicians seem to have ten-year bursts of creativity (even if they play for decades), but I do think leaders can remain fresh and imaginative.

Erwin McManus, at age 60, is a great example of a leader who has reinvented himself, again and again, to stay fresh and exceptionally relevant. His interview with Lewis Howes is a fascinating example of how to stay on the edge of change and speak into a culture that’s searching for God.

What keeps you fresh and relevant?

What patterns do you see? Scroll down and leave a comment!

Has Your Leadership Peaked? The Theory of the 10 Year Run.

21 Comments

  1. Bill Berger on October 21, 2019 at 10:23 am

    Carey,

    This is fantastic. I have been floundering at 52 (planted church at 32, great growth, stagnation, questioning my future). I have been pondering ways to encourage and empower the next gen; not wanting to be a know it all, but being a person that cares and hopefully is able to dispense wisdom I have acquired over the years. This post is energizing!

    Thank you!

    Press on!!

    Bill

  2. Doug Wolter on August 6, 2019 at 8:37 am

    I always appreciate your posts, but may I give a little push-back? I wonder if as leaders it’s not so much that we learn to reinvent ourselves as we learn to die to ourselves.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 6, 2019 at 1:42 pm

      Hey Doug,

      Feedback is always welcome! Both are important, would it be possible to do both at the same time?

      What if your reinvention is out of obedience?

      Hope my posts continue to help!

      Carey

  3. Carla Ingram on April 3, 2019 at 9:41 am

    I’m very interested in the high impact leadership course

  4. Bob on April 2, 2019 at 11:40 am

    This is exceptional and spot on Carey. Thanks for what you do to encourage and guide us into higher-impact practices and understanding of our calling. As I’ve grown as a leader, I have often wondered what I would do, as I am now in year twenty between youth and pastoral ministry. Actually I too am entering in year eight at one place, and this all rings true for me. Thank you, as I will be following the steps you’ve suggested and entering into the High Impact Leadership Course as well.

  5. Craig Farrell on April 2, 2019 at 3:34 am

    Hi Carey, thx for the blog, yep it does resonate with me. Makes sense. No compulsion to move on after 10 years but certainly stagnation can easily set in, especially when things are going well/right/ok. The church was meant for more than “ok” :). Re-invention, introspection, missional adjustments, methods, etc must all be constantly looked at and a strategy for the future – implemented.
    Good blog. Kind regards,
    Craig Farrell, Lead Elder, Eden in the City Church, East London, South Africa (not UK :)) +27 83 297 0040
    In Partnership with New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI)

  6. Justin on March 22, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    I whole heartedly agree Carey. I left formal ministry after 10 years (almost to the day). I had proposed to my senior leadership to change my role and shift how I operated but this was rejected. I no longer had a vision for my next 5 years.
    I didn’t recognise this as ‘reinvention’ but this maps my path to restlessness and desire for thorough rethinking fairly predictably. I think you’re onto something.
    Have you mapped this with sports teams? Maybe not ten years as champions, but ten years in the top 4 or top 6.
    Similarly with athletes in the Olympics. I think most athletes only make 2 Olympics (8 years).
    I think there is a danger that we reinvent because we’re frustrated, bored, or disappointed. I quite enjoy change so my challenge is to be patient and bring people with me, then wait long enough to reap the benefits of change before jumping to the next thing!
    thanks Carey.

  7. Tanisha on March 22, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Definitely not the point of the article, but Nieuwhof said Beyonce hasn’t had a solo top 10 hit in 10 years and that’s just false… Formation was #10 in 2016.   🐝

  8. Helmut on March 21, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    Thank you Carey, your presentation is top drawer.

  9. Steve W. on March 21, 2019 at 10:58 am

    I can absolutely attest to the 10 year run. Just last year I left a ministry leadership position I had been in for almost 11 years. I certainly believe that the change was God leading me to something different, but part of that discernment came because I realized I wasn’t as effective in my role anymore. Looking back now I think it would have been better for me and my church if I had left a few years earlier. This is not to say that leaving is always the right answer, but for me in that season it definitely was.

    Always thankful for your insights and perspective, Carey!

  10. Sheila Beers on March 21, 2019 at 10:45 am

    In my experience as a church pianist and children’s Sunday school teacher over the past 60 years, I too have noticed the ten-year run phenomenon. I do not believe it is so much that I have burned out but that, in some instances, the policies and denominational associations of the church have changed so that the church just is/was not the same place any more. Also, the character of the membership can change so that the church group itself seems to have taken on a different personality. Sometimes it is simply the time to shake the dust from one’s feet and/or to be called to a new place that needs a different leader’s input and guidance.

    From my early years I noticed how the United Methodist Church changes pastors every three or four years, and I believe this can prevent stagnation by a pastor who stays too long in one church. I also have known of independent Baptist pastors who prefer to change churches every three to four years. I also have known of churches where pastors simply stayed far too long, such as 15-20 years, and then someone in the pastor’s family would cause some scandal that almost ruined the testimony and ministry and led the people of the community to believe Christianity was phony and irrelevant to them. Then, there are other cases where pastors remained in one church for 20-30 years and were very effective and much loved by their congregations and the communities. I do not believe there is one magic formula for dealing with the time to change one’s approach or to leave a church and take a position or pastorate at another church. The best advice I can give is to pray about every situation and seek God’s will and leading.

  11. Buddy Cook on March 21, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Thanks, Carey! I have pastored 2 churches each for 14 years. If I do not reinvent myself eventually the church begins to stagnate. I am there right now and seeking God for the next thing. Blessings!

  12. John Cannata on March 21, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Hey Carie!

    I just want to thank you for being a resource to me personally. I have had kind of a sour taste in my mouth about the subject of leadership because I have found in my own personal journey that a lot of people are more excited about the subject of leadership than they are about Jesus! Also, unfortunately, many decisions have been in the name of leadership and not just loving people first and caring about their welfare over the organization. You seem to always challenge my thinking and help me to look in front of me and not make leading the church I serve, about myself. So many leaders have quirks and make leading people about themselves first. Oh for the day when Pastors actually are NOT what the church is built on, but built totally on Jesus and His grace and love. Thank you my friend and God’s best and highest be yours in abundance!!

  13. Brian on March 21, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Great article. I never thought I’d see the day when Carey Nieuwhof would use 50 Cent as an example, but it works. 🙂

  14. Tom Brown on March 21, 2019 at 9:31 am

    As a retired church board member, I’d say your 10-year model is ideal. Too many churches drift along with the same leadership year after year, claiming younger members aren’t interested or lack the experience. I think some pastors are to blame for the pattern because they get comfortable dealing with certain personalities on the board, and don’t really want new members who might question church policies and budgets. Our small church had a board term limit of 5 years, but we recently raised it to 7. The rationale — and I bet a lot of small churches would agree with this — is that we have a shortage of young people joining the church, and therefore the older generation (60 and up) has to carry the load. True to some extent, but, still, the older board members need to reach out to the younger members, ask their opinions and ask them to volunteer.

  15. Scotty Crawford on March 21, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Carey,
    Thank you for making this post. I can totally see this pattern in my own life. About every 10 years or so my wife and I have embraced big change. The latest one was leaving behind the security of a position with an established church and planting a new church (different kind of church altogether). Every change has been difficult, sometimes excruciating for my whole family, but also every time it has been the right thing. As a father, I ‘m so glad my two sons have been right in the middle of this last one. They’ve walked through the difficulty of transitioning from a place of comfort into the uncertainty of something brand new. All for the sake of the mission to introduce people to Jesus. They’re getting to experience the richness of the relationships that have been established because of it. I hope it sticks with them and that they never settle for status quo living in their futures! At times I’ve felt as if there is something wrong with me to have such a strong desire for change every so often. You’ve just helped me see the pattern. Thank you so much. Looking forward to Rethink Leadership!

    Scotty

  16. Chuck on March 21, 2019 at 9:19 am

    So much to add here. Great inspiration but I’d spin a few cautionary footnotes.

    1. Add a fourth point. Wise counsel. Creatify that into something more spiffs if you want. But the advice is pure scripture. Seek abundance of counsel. Wall with the wise. Those in your inner circle can help you tweak your vision and keep you grounded in God’s bigger plans.

    2. Ideas, trends and anecdotes are perfect for blogs. But I’m intensely curious. What does the data show? I in no way disagree. But I’m a scientist and would love to see Barna’s or someone ekse’s storehouse of data that might point at some change sources See my next point.

    3. You change. I change. So does the culture around us. Which I know you know. Some times it’s one, the other or both. Which is it? That’s another issue for every leader to confront.

    Love your post. These aren’t meant critically. More like further investigation. For everyone reading this.

    Chuck

  17. Jerry Edmonson on March 21, 2019 at 9:09 am

    Great post. I’m turning 60, founded and have served my church for 25 years and have experienced a lot of changes. I think you are definitely on to something.

  18. Chuck Harrison on March 21, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Let me begin by saying I am a big fan of your blog, I read it regularly. But this one is a little flat. First, Tony Morgan wasn’t even close to being the first person to suggest such a life cycle for churches. Bob Dale was playing with this notion in his 1981 book “To Dream Again.” More recently, people like George Bullard have done major work using similar models. Also, you prescription of “reinventing” is precisely what Dale’s book was about.
    Keep up the good work!
    PS I really enjoyed “Didn’t See It Coming”

  19. George Reynolds on March 21, 2019 at 8:53 am

    We once had a Bishop who said that ever church should get a ‘new’ pastor every year! Being in my current role for 13 years, I feel that struggle now to reinvent myself and re-imagine ministry. Thanks for the post.

  20. Dee on March 21, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Peak–> Plateau? Can the plateau be kept fertile – yes, but not necessarily by the lead climber. Part of the leadership challenge is succession. with your own “exit strategy” a key aspect of that. Can you work from the plateau or is it better to go find a new hill?
    Stagnation = leadership failure.

    If it is a 10yr cycle does that mean my inbox is about to dry up…..? ;-))

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