Corporate Officer: A Job that Kills?

The well-paid world of corporate officers is ruthlessly transparent, and the rules of the game are clear: deliver and you will be rewarded; fail and you will be blamed. After the crisis of 2008 and additional regulation, the primary route to win is by fair means: smart and hard work. At the moment though, it seems that excessive smart and hard work is asking its price; the health and even the lives of corporate officers are in danger.

In the space of just a few weeks, the suicides of  Pierre Wauthier, CFO of Zurich Insurance, and Carsten Schloter, CEO of Swisscom, are shaking the minds of corporate officers worldwide. Aside from the tragedy such suicides are for family and individuals, they also endanger the sustainability of whole organisations. Advice of coaches and health experts about coping with stress–recognizing the early signs of burnout and depression–is well meant, but it seems to me that it isn’t much more than a drop of water in the desert. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if it is really useful to put corporate officers under such pressure that they feel their job is killing them, literally? Our research at CCL showcases the importance of health and fitness for the sustained effectiveness of corporate officers: Healthy leaders are indeed better leaders. We also know that work-life-balance is important for everyone but also looks differently from person to person. I do think it is important to emphasize that we are all first and foremost responsible for ourselves, and only if we are healthy can we fully dedicate ourselves to care for others. For many leaders, CCL’s focus on health in our executive programs has been life changing. But how much can it help to make an individual leader healthy if the system is geared towards destroying people’s health?

I keep wondering how sensible it is if we implicitly allow the selection of our companies’ leaders to be based on their ability to withstand stress and assert themselves against competition. How sensible it is to single out individuals and entrust them with larger-than-life responsibilities, put them in a highly competitive environment with very little support, and then blame them if they fail to exceed expectations? Should we not show more leadership and ask how we can support our leaders – even our own ones – to succeed, rather than condoning the rate race to see who fails first?

I think leadership needs to be about more than just survival of the fittest. I think the ultimate measure of CEO success should not be their length of tenure, their ability to wither media and shareholder pressure, charismatically motivate and confidently role model purpose and ambition. I think their success lies in the results that they create for companies and societies. Results that matter – I mean, really matter, beyond pure financial means. Human results and humane ways to achieve them.

How much humaneness do we foster in our corporate officers? Do we even look for their ability to show empathy, recognize the interconnectedness of people, organizations and societies, lead based on their values and pursue goals because of their ethical rather than financial value? I think it is time for us to reflect on our own expectations of leaders, what we really want from our leaders, and how we can support them to be the kind of leaders that we, our organisations, and our society, need.

I would love to hear your views on how we can make leadership more humane and healthy, not only for corporate officers, but for all of us.


About Gina Eckert

Regina (Gina) Eckert joined the Center for Creative Leadership in 2006 as a researcher in the EMEA region. Gina's academic background is in social and work psychology. Her work focuses on global and cross-cultural leadership, managerial development and careers of women and men across countries, and leadership for organizational responsibility and sustainability. Currently, Gina is managing research into Careers in 21st Century Europe and the creation of a new 360-degree instrument, the Global Leader View.
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One Response to Corporate Officer: A Job that Kills?

  1. I understand that, instead of blaming their organizations for this unbearable situation of pressure on their leaders, the corporate officers have to primarily face the tough reality: they have to review their own atitudes against their lives and other people’s lives. This is not a natural result of the competition or the wild capitalism, as many would say. The enemy is not the corporation, or the capitalist, or the system. The real enemy is the set of predominant values created by the corporate officers to keep their positions on management. For me this “mea culpa” is suposed to come first, followed by the courage of the corporate officers to propose the needed change towards an alternative more humanistic approach.

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