When to avoid the corner office

Should the ambitious should aspire to positions of leadership?

When to avoid the corner office
Photo by NEOM / Unsplash

It is almost an unquestioned assumption that the ambitious should aspire to positions of leadership. In hiring over the last decade, I encountered many who described themselves as leaders, eager to step into positions where they could test their mettle. I, myself, was one. From an early age, I found myself believing that positions of leadership were stations in life endowed with honor and status.

Our well-worn career tracks often guide people into destinations of leadership. As an individual contributor, the reward for exemplary work is first more work, and then it is leadership.

And yet, Arthur Brooks, in an article in The Atlantic, suggests that one of the under-acknowledged reasons that leaders fail is that they actually hate being in positions of leadership. They may be ambitious and even skilled leaders, but the role of a leader doesn’t suit them; it might make them not just lonely, according to research he cites, but also angrier.

I loved being the CEO of Uncharted. It was a platform for creativity and care like never before, but the dominant emotional experience of the role was that of a burden. It coincided with the loneliest periods of my life, when I felt most mentally fragile and most encumbered by the tension between leading a company and doing right by its people.

To choose to be a leader, but not seek the positions of leadership, invites a more expansive definition. It asks us to explore the conditions that contribute to our thriving and the ones that do not. It requires unraveling the connections we’ve made between positional leadership and status, ambition, or reputation. Perhaps most of all, it nudges us to take an honest look at ourselves; to ask, what do we want our days to be like? What do we want our lives to look like? And then, who are we becoming as we go about our work? In those questions, there are the glimmers of a brave and tender self-leadership.