06/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Term Limits for Labor Leaders?

In the two weeks since Andy Stern announced his retirement after 14 years as the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), most of the talk within the labor movement and beyond has been about Stern's legacy, Mary Kay Henry's rise as his successor, and what the impact on the movement will be.

However, we've been missing a chance to have a discussion on a question that is critical for the future of organized labor: How long should our leaders serve?

I have tremendous respect for those who lead the top international unions and labor federations in this country. I don't think conversation about this issue should be construed as a personal attack on our existing leadership. But I do believe that we are in a moment when we must be having a vibrant debate about what are the best ways to be moving our movement forward. Discussion about our institutional cultures surrounding leadership should be part of that.

Currently, top leadership in the labor movement does not turn over for decades at a time. In contrast, the most dynamic organizations in American civic life--whether in the business or nonprofit realms--have top officers who sit in office for ten years at the most. Average tenures for leaders at start-up companies in Silicon Valley that were generating innovation in our economy when I was working there in the 1990s and early 2000s were commonly just five or six years. Across American business, the average CEO currently sits for only 4.2 years, down from 10.5 years a decade ago.

Should labor follow this example and try to create a culture with shorter terms of service? Should we even consider term limits for top union positions?

I'm not sure about that. But I am certain that we need to have a discussion about how long is enough.

There are three reasons to think that shorter terms in office would help to create more dynamism in our movement:

1) Leaders can only give the best of themselves for so long. The top labor jobs are so demanding and exhausting that it is impossible for any one person to carry the burden indefinitely and remain at the top of their game. They need to be able to draw on a deep bench of up-and-coming leaders to help bear the load.

2) If leaders knew their time in office was limited, they would be challenged from the start to make leadership development a priority and to nurture a talented trove of potential successors. They would take more urgent steps to ensure that the institutions to which they have dedicated so much of themselves will be left in good hands when they depart. Since there are huge secondary benefits that unions reap from this sort of intensified leadership cultivation, I can think of few better things to encourage.

SEIU is an example of a union that does leadership development well, and the fact that it has a wealth of leadership talent is one of the things that allowed Stern to retire confident that the union would continue to grow. A product of SEIU's system, Mary Kay Henry rose through the ranks, and that bodes well for the organization's future.

3) Labor loses talent when top up-and-coming leaders feel they are stuck treading water for decades. Many start looking outside the movement for greater leadership opportunities. That might be a boon to our society at large, but it's not something that labor can afford on a large scale.

I think that many of our current leaders would like to be able to hand over responsibilities to new stewards. However, because leadership development is not something that typically happens organically--without sustained and focused effort--they feel there are not others who are ready to move into top posts and that they must therefore remain out of necessity if their institutions are to survive.

They act with the best interests of their members at heart. But, in the long term, our movement is missing an opportunity to spur much-needed vitality in our organizations by not constantly assessing how our institutional cultures can be improved--and how we can kick our efforts to promote new talent into high gear.