Leader Tenure

If he wants, China’s president Xi Jinping now has the right to be president for life.  If he wants, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin now has the means to be president for life. And when President Donald Trump was trying to be funny, he twice over said being president for life was “great,” and at least once suggested Americans “try it someday.”  

Leader tenure is sometimes assumed. For example, presidents of the United States can be reelected no more than one time – thus they can serve a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. More often, though, leader tenure is not assumed. It is uncertain, not precisely determined or even determined not at all. In other words, most of the time when a person assumes a position of authority, when that person will vacate that position is unknown.    

Moreover, the norms associated with leader tenure are weak. The leadership industry nearly never addresses the subject. And most groups and organizations impose no restrictions on how long their leaders can stay where they are. In the United States, the average tenure for a US Senator is somewhat over ten years; similarly, and likely not coincidentally, the average tenure for a CEO is also somewhat over ten years. But a good number of senators stay in their posts for longer than a decade, as do a good number of CEOs.

One could reasonably argue that so long as leaders are doing a good job, why not leave them alone? Is there an inherent virtue to removing them from their posts so long as they remain good at what they do? It’s not clear. It’s not clear because the question is rarely front and center. It’s not clear because on this subject there is little or no good research. Above all it’s not clear because we are disposed to leave well enough alone, especially when well enough is really rather good – or even very good.

Jamie Dimon has been chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase for over a decade and a half. He is worth nearly two billion dollars and, despite mistakes along the way, is widely considered among the best bankers of his generation.

Last year, Dimon, who is 65, underwent emergency heart surgery. For a brief time, it was not clear if he would return to his post and, if so, under which if any restrictions. Turned out before long he was back full tilt, without any appreciable signs of slowing down. Nevertheless, with an apparent eye to his succession, this week Dimon appointed two women to top posts, one of whom is likely someday to succeed him.

But when that “someday” will come remains entirely opaque. In fact, members of JPMorgan’s board, more than content with Dimon’s performance over the last decade and a half, have told him they want him to stay on for a “significant number of additional years.” How many years is that exactly – what is a number that is “significant”? Who knows? Reports are that Dimon is thinking another five years at least.   

I admit to being on shaky ground when suggesting that one leader in one place for fifteen years or more seems generally a bad idea. Though we do know that autocrats tend to cling to power for unconscionably long, the comparative research on this is as indicated, meager. Still, the world in which Dimon became JPMorgan’s leader is in a thousand ways different from the world in which Dimon leads now. Moreover, leaders are like the rest of us – they get more rigid, less nimble and flexible, more set in their ways. Finally, as history attests, over time power tends to corrupt or, at least, corrode.

How would Dimon respond to the concerns I raise? I’m supposing he might grant my argument – and then point out that to every rule are exceptions.

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