Photo: File
Photo: File

Rewriting the story of leadership in the workplace: the leader, the monk and the bull

By Time of article published Nov 2, 2021

Share this article:

Kerry Morris

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Let’s do the future of our workforce a kindness and rewrite the book on leadership. 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 chief executive 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:

Four 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. 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.

Since when was it ever a pre-requisite to have “Burn Out Experience” on your resumé? Never. Many managers, chief executives, financial directors and managing directors 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. Adopt a method of rest and recovery among 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 it’s wrapped in integrity and authenticity.

You don’t need to become a monk, and say you were once a leader.

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? 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.

Kerry Morris is the chief executive of recruitment and labour services agency, Tower Group.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE

Share this article: