The top is not for everyone

If you are one of those people who are highly driven, very ambitious and often described as a go-getter, you will find any spot other than the top of any pile somewhat frustrating.  That’s probably because you cannot conceive of a situation that is satisfactory without the authority, autonomy or auspiciousness that a top position brings with it. But the truth is that occupying the top position is a tough call and the top, as it turns out, is not for everyone!

A quick glance at Zimbabwe’s current political situation demonstrates clearly the mess that can result from everyone trying to make a play for the top seat. Surely I am not the only who giggles when I hear the names of some of the people who are said to be presidential hopefuls.  We wonder what might have possessed someone to dream such a big dream when the rest of us can see that the shoes are clearly too big to ever fit.

But it’s not only in politics that we observe the scramble for leadership. In corporate structures it isn’t only plotting and machinations that people engage to get to the top, but also honest hard work and determination. Yet, even then, few realise that senior management positions are not for the faint hearted.

When we hear someone say that they don’t long for a higher post, or that they are happy with a median ranking on the totem pole we often assume they are lazy or that they embrace mediocrity.  This is not always the case though, and these folks may be wiser than we think.  There are actually several good reasons not to try for a top position:

  1. There is more risk and responsibility assumed by senior leaders than you could ever be compensated for. Often, the reality of what you are taking on only hits once something bad happens.  Where the buck stops is not anyone’s favourite bus stop!
  2. The more senior you become in any organisation the more you go from a specialist to a generalist. You are no longer doing what you love because you are now an administrator. Unless you have a passion for it, administration can be mind-numbingly boring!
  3. The top is fraught with danger. As with having anything that many other people want, the top is a place where you must constantly watch your back. Living in this way can be stressful, not to mention extremely lonely. A senior person cannot afford to have friends within the structures, and yet the need for true and trustworthy friendship is so great.
  4. Sometimes it’s just too hard. It’s hard to cast and develop a vision.  It’s hard to articulate and sell it to people who may have other ideas, or worse still, people who don’t have any ideas at all. Much like parenting, it can be rewarding when it goes well. But when it doesn’t, it can be thankless, gruelling and demoralising.

So, perhaps we should start to give each other permission to pause in middle management – it’s really not such a bad place to hang out.  Let’s make it OK for our children to aim for a place on the team rather than being the captain. Let’s forgive our spouses if they appear to have the capacity to do and be more, but choose not to. Let’s celebrate our achievements even if they don’t entail a corner office and a big car. Let’s acknowledge that it really is tough at the top, and that top is not for everyone!

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