When has a leader led for too long?

Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13
Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13
Photograph by Josh Haner — Bloomberg via Getty Images

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, gets elected President, and wins two terms, she’ll leave office in 2024. That would mean that between her role as First Lady, her time in the Senate, her term as Secretary of State, her flirtation with a second presidential run, and her actual term in the White House, she’d have been on the national stage with the Democratic Party for more than 30 years, dating back to her husband’s election in 1992. That is a very long time to be in the public eye, and an especially long time to be in a position of power.

Can someone remain effective in a position if they are in the spotlight for so long?

It depends, says leadership expert at Wharton School of Business professor Michael Useem. He “doesn’t see any evidence” that merely sticking around for a long while can cause a leader to lose effectiveness, or that long-term exposure to a leader makes people start to lose faith in their abilities. But, through the years, the challenges facing any group change. And if leaders fail to evolve, they will lose touch with the needs of the people they represent or manage. To illustrate this challenge, Useem uses General Electric and the switch from Jack Welch to Jeff Immelt.

“What Jeff Immelt brought to the table is much different from what Jack Welch brought to the table,” he says. Essentially, even if Welsh hadn’t lost his shine as a leader, that doesn’t mean that he would have been as good as Immelt at navigating a 21st century business environment.

Another potential downside of sticking around? People discover that they just don’t like you as much as they thought they did. Take the recent elections in Canada. It isn’t so much that people in Canada had radically shifted their politics as it was that they were just tired of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Globe and Mail even published an editorial endorsing another the Conservatives but imploring the party to drop Harper.

In politics, Useem says, “brand and reputation is really vital for why we vote for somebody.” Harper hasn’t done much for his brand lately; many were turned off by what they saw as race-baiting and divisive politicking. So even if some Canadians may have been willing to give the Conservatives more time, they just didn’t want Harper to be their leader any more.

There is also the danger of an organization becoming too synonymous with one leader. Twitter, for example, recently brought back its former CEO Jack Dorsey, with many saying he was the only viable candidate to lead the troubled social networking site. If only one person can lead your organization, that could be cause for concern. Barack Obama and the Clintons have been synonymous with the Democratic Party for so long that the party is sorely lacking in other leaders. If Hillary Clinton had decided not to run for president, for example, there would not have been a trove of other possible nominees ready to take her place. This could be pointed at as a failing of the party and its leaders in recent years. Useem says a leader’s No. 1 priority should be to “leave behind people who can run the darn place.”

Just because Hillary Clinton has been around a long time doesn’t mean she isn’t equipped to lead the Democratic Party or the nation. It does mean, though, that voters will want to see a real evolution from the Hillary Clinton they saw in 1992, 2000, 2008, and even 2012.

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