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Opinion piece by Kerry Morris, CEO of recruitment and labour services agency, The Tower Group.

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.

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How is this success? Moreover, how is this leadership? 

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 KPIs. 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.

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The future of leadership

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. 

What about the next generation of career chasers and climbers?

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. 

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. 

Kerry Morris is the CEO of South Africa’s award-winning recruitment and labour services agency, Tower Group. A recognised leader of trade and industry, spanning a career of 20 years, Kerry’s’ extensive experience in human capital engagement sets her apart as one of South Africa’s leading front runners for key-quality human resources, and an advocate for empowering women in business.  

Photo by Alyssa Rose from Pexels

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