Who remembers the Monk who sold his Ferrari? I do, and I distinctly recall how the protagonist of the story jumped ship and washed his hands of his legal career, gave up his fancy house, his saucy life (his Ferrari!!) and literally disappeared. All because it got too much. The book unfolds after Julian suffers a heart attack from the magma of stress across his chest and decides, drastically, and pretty dramatically, to make a life change.
And so – this kind of tragedy-turned-triumph story has for a long time become the badge of honour in our leadership arena. The story goes like this every time: you work hard, you sacrifice everything, you make money, you lose yourself, you lose your friends, you destroy relationships, you work harder, you stress out, you check out, you break, you get sick, you get sick again, you die or…you become a monk. And then – you write a book – and boom, you’re back in the hero seat.
How is this success? Moreover, how is this Leadership?
Well, frankly, it’s not and it needs to be rewritten and redefined.
With increased demands and instant response time, business as we know it in the 21st Century has become a bullet train tracking at a million miles a minute, placing volcanic expectations on our leaders; to the point where watching them explode, break and burn, and then triumphantly rebuild themselves (if they’re lucky) has found its way to the popcorn cruncher genre of our bookshelves – who doesn’t love a good get-back-up memoir?!
But why does Leadership have to look like this? This sacrificial narrative is a red flag. It’s becoming our leadership benchmark that is sadly setting a harsh example for entry level job seekers and career climbers.
Why become a Leader when all it comes with is pain and suffering?
Our first-time job seekers and middle management players are rendered concerned by the dreaded fate of a leadership title. They’re too afraid to ‘lead’ or, heaven forbid, be recognised as a leader, for fear of having to suffer a similar path thanks to their record-breaking KPI’s. Ironic?
As a result, employees are shying away from ‘too much’ responsibility. They are not showing up enough; they’re not stepping forward enough; they’re leaving the “big stuff” to the big guns at the top of the hierarchy, simply because they’re scared. And why wouldn’t they be, when acquiring the title of “Leader” in a corporation comes with a healthy pay cheque, but also 25 doctor’s bills and a one-way ticket to isolation in the Himalayas.
This is a grave concern for the future of leadership in our organisations. The ‘up and coming’ cohort of employees is quickly turning into the ‘scared and shadow’ cohort, by their own admission; they’re changing their minds along the climb, or at worst, staying at entry level, because they believe it’s safer – and probably wiser – to stick in the shadows than to shine in the boardroom.
As business owners, we need to change the language of leadership. It’s our responsibility to break down the perception of leadership, for the greater good of our people and our economy. We will never recycle or encourage our aspiring teams to step up and bring the best version of themselves to any position, if we, as leaders, succumb to the sufferance – and if we keep showing up as frazzled, exhausted, cut-throat and stressed-out.
The example we lead by is the outcome we sow – which is why the majority of climbers believe that Leader Titles are only reserved for the smartest, the toughest, the bravest and the most ruthless (and the most qualified); the ones that can stand the heat – and the heart attacks.
This is simply not true, and we need to stop making it so.
As Leaders of today, our only hope for an encouraged generation of career chasers and climbers is to rewrite the meaning of Leadership in our organisations. First, for ourselves, and then for our people.
It’s about reassessing the example we lead by. It’s about leading regardless of pay grade or title. It’s about transforming Leadership into a company culture, not a promotional gain. A culture where everybody wants to lead because it looks good, and it feels good – and ultimately, it ends well.
We’re so focussed on what we need in order to lead that we’re losing focus on what it truly looks like to step into a higher role. No longer should it be about what you need to be a leader, but instead, it’s about what you don’t need to be a leader, that will change the story.
Founders, Directors, Managers – let’s do the future of our workforce a kindness and rewrite the book on leadership. Let’s change the story and our teachings as Leaders. Let’s trash the misconceptions about the Top Dog Seat coming with a do-or-die price. Leadership is not this. It’s not the lawyer’s story nor the monk’s story. Quite the contrary: it’s our story. From CEO to Cashier, the story of leadership does not start with its title and end in the ICU. It starts and ends with company culture – and this is a story that belongs to all of us.
Teaching the story of Leadership:
4 things your people don’t need to be…
- You don’t need a title to be a leader
The truth is, as a career hungry society we are too stuck on titles. The employee is led to believe their title defines the expectations. The lower the pay grade or the title, the lower the expectations, the easier it becomes not to lead. Many first-time job seekers resist the urge to climb in order to avoid the expectations of leadership. In my books, this slow-to-grow attitude is a result of fear of leadership. This kind of fear drives complacency and complacency is dangerous in any business.
Story Change: Make leadership a culture not a title. No matter the job description, everyone is a leader and is hired to lead. Teach your people to lead from their own seats. Whatever they are good at, encourage them to do it with pride, commitment and unique ability. No fancy title required.
- You don’t need to burn out to be ordained a leader
Since when was it ever a pre-requisite to have “Burn Out Experience” on your resumé? Never. Many Managers, CEOs, FD’s and MD’s have adopted the burn and break method of leadership, as a means to prove themselves worthy of their “title”. Bad idea. To lead, and lead authentically, requires flames of energy and enthusiasm. No flame no game – and ultimately no aspiring followers in your footsteps.
Story Change: Recognise ‘Burn Out Intelligence’ as a key performance indicator. Teach your teams about burnout – become vocal about balance and wellness. Adopt a method of rest and recovery amongst your Leaders and the idea that a healthy life develops a healthy leader.
- You don’t need to be ruthless to be a leader
Did you know that the Volunteerism Industry in Australia, for example, is accounted for as one of the economy’s most influential groups? Fact. That’s what Leadership looks like. It doesn’t need to come with a dog-eat-dog behaviour. Nor does it come with a long-winded title. It comes with a “doing”, a way of being. And another thing it comes with – empathy.
Story Change: Teach your people that Leadership does not look like the Devil wears Prada. It doesn’t have to be ugly and terrifying – where your staff are shaking in their boots just to breathe. Leadership is not leadership if it’s shrouded in power play; obliterate the stigma of the “A-hole Leader archetype”; that shoots from the hip and only pushes the bottom line. Leadership is leadership when it listens and cares; when its wrapped in integrity and authenticity. Leadership is empathy, compassion and the little things – like fixing a warm cup of coffee when your customer arrives at your reception.
- You don’t need to become a monk, and say you were once a leader
Hands up if you’ve heard a story this week of someone that left “corporate” to move to the countryside and start a chocolate fondant shop. It happens. A lot. Sadly, corporate environments have earned a bad rep for chasing people to…well…the Himalayas. Life-changes do not have to be this dramatic -and we’re to blame. Our dramatic portrayal of leadership has a lot to do with these irrational career jumps by our colleagues – and even – our superiors.
Story Change: What if we developed our leaders to lead by example, and not by drama. What if we wrote books about Line Managers that had happy families and spent quality time with their children while still being able to get their work done, on time, and with excellence? Develop your leaders to tell better stories about their leadership, to show a better way of being; to reveal that leadership doesn’t have to cost you. It’s meant to lift you, inspire you – so you can inspire others. Do this, and your employees will no doubt feel safer to show up, and more satiated by climbing up the ladder, rather than jumping off it.
By Kerry Morris, CEO of The Tower Group