Why Most CEOs Are Cowards

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When I speak to the top executives at Fortune 500 companies nationwide about “work-life balance” or what I call “our life’s work,” I start off by doing a quick exercise where they anonymously write down:

  1. the things they thought they had to sacrifice in their lives for work…
  2. that they wish they didn’t have to sacrifice…
  3. in order to get where they are professionally

Their responses will bring tears to your eyes:

  • grandparents’ last days
  • childrens’ births and birthdays
  • sports games and recitals
  • friend’s weddings
  • family vacations and reunions
  • anniversaries
  • graduations
  • first-this and first-that
  • last-this and last-that.

The conversation that follows is usually one filled with regret, frustration over have-tos and hate-tos, and powerlessness against their employer despite the position they have with their employer.

Most executives in Corporate America think they got there because they were the hardest working people. But ironically, that’s not true. It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the follower. The truth is that usually it is the second hardest working person that rises to the top.

There are misperceptions about and by those who made it, want to make it, and those who didn’t and I want to take moment to clarify and stet the record straight.

1. What those who are at the top (aka CEOs) think:

They think they are the strongest. They survived the hazing of Corporate America.They leaned in and they are the workaholics now. Work came first just like the word “work-life” balance suggests. They sacrificed their marriage, kids, friends, and life beyond work and therefore they are deserving of the title, power, high-pay, and early retirement. Look what they gave up for the sake of the company. For them, life is on the other side of retirement. I’ll get there soon enough and have more than enough money to enjoy it. Instead, they end up spending their retirement trying to earn and buy back the love, life, and people they put second. Their strength is really an illusion because they never had the strength to say “No” and choose their life. Instead, life happened to them. They made tough choices for the company, but they didn’t make tough choices in their own life. Just ask their spouses and kids what they think. They allowed the company to take over their weekends and weeknights, move them from this state to that country and back, and they compromise what they said they valued. They put the company first.

2. What those who didn’t (aka The Invisible Leaders) make it think:

They think they are the smartest. They actually worked harder than the those who are currently at the top. They were the workaholics, but one of two things happened to them. Either their own workaholism consumed them and they burned out. They may have got divorced or they recognized the negative impact it was having in other areas of their life, and they made an intentional choice to stop racing or to choose another career track. Once they realized that their corporate ladder was leaned up against the wrong wall or that it would never reach their full potential whether they became CEO or not, the decided to bow out gracefully. Now, they have a job that pays well-enough in a smaller company where they have more autonomy over when, where, and how they work. They put their family first and their happiness above the company.

3. What those who want to be at the top (aka You & I) think:

They think they want to be #1, but they really want to be #2. They hope that magically they will be able to have both. The beauty about time is that it is limited and it forces us to make choices. We can’t fit everything in. It’s a juggling act and a lot of people drop the ball. The best way to avoid the rat race is to get out. Inside, we know that there is a higher form of competition. Rather than competing against others to see who can climb the pyramid the fastest, the real game of life is a competition against our highest selves. We are torn between wanting to be recognized by others and recognizing our full potential.

We all want to D.R.E.A.M. awake, which means having our Desired Relationships, Employment, And Money. Each of us values those three things in a different order and with a different weight. And they also change throughout life. Instead of leaning in, I’ve checked out. And I’ve found a way to use my unique gifts, talents, strengths, and skills to have my own combination of #1 and #2.

Don’t be fooled by what “successful” people say. They will make their story and life sound great in order to justify the choices they made. Success in the eyes of others doesn’t guarantee that you feel successful inside. Instead, create value and hold true to your values and you will have success on your own terms.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. – William Shakespeare

Discussion Question: Do you respect today’s archetype of the Fortune 500 CEO?================================================================