Devaluing the Value: Redefining Success

Red on topSo, traditional success has been largely financially motivated.  There seems to be little doubt that money aspirations have driven a majority of career development plans over the past century.  “Arrival” at the pinnacle of one’s career meant reaching a particular income level (many times thinly veiled as a leadership promotion, but for which actual leadership competence rarely played a significant role in succession ideals), upon which one could no longer hope for increasing opportunities to make even more income.  Yes, bonuses, side gigs in consulting or the selling off of one’s free time in exchange for a supplementary income source, may add to one’s earning potential.  That’s hardly the point…..

Cost of living increases.  Outsourcing. Single-income families. All of these (and many more) have been held up as reasons for workers increasingly frenetic pursuit of this traditional version of success.  But at what cost?  And more to the point, what is the drawbacks of this single-minded career focus?

Shrinking Opportunities

Let’s face it, in even the flattest organizational structures, when career success equates to promotions up the hierarchy (both for power and financial gain), fewer and fewer workers will ever ultimately succeed.  It’s a mere numbers game.  There are far fewer seats at the top than on the front line.  Now, if promotional opportunities were not the primary way in which modern workers could increase their compensation levels, but rather alternative routes for those with a true passion for leadership (pretend that such promotions did not come with substantial financial gain).

promotion_965844“But, Trevor, who in their right mind would want the additional work of being a leader or manager, if they weren’t paid more for doing it?” I’ve been asked frequently.

And there’s the rub…most organizations haven’t structured their leadership roles as sole leadership roles.  Instead, we find the paradigm of the working manager at play in nearly all sectors of our economy.  Leaders not only lead (setting vision, motivating and inspiring followers, and attending to truly strategic, big picture decision making), but are expected to lead AND continue their roles, so some degree, as individual contributors.  So, yes, in this situation, it only makes sense to pay leaders significantly more.  After all, they’re expected to DO significantly more.  And so more and more workers seek out these increasingly competitive and financially beneficial opportunities, to which only a few will ever “succeed” in attaining.


Directly related to the shrinking opportunities is the increasing pressure on workers to put in longer hours, to stay connected through electronic media from home, the Little League stands, or on the commute to and from the office.  Vacation rates per employee have slowly, but steadily declined in recent decades, as workers prioritize their work (sometimes out of fear of losing their jobs and often because of the perception that any time off shows less dedication to their organization, and therefore, less “promotable.”  So, the work day gets longer, personal commitments to family, friends, and individual relationships and pursuits get nudged out, and stress levels raise from being pulled in so many directions.  The typical result is burnout, characterized by lowered productivity, increased disengagement, and strife in personal lives.  In other words, this pursuit of “success” actually decreases the chances of financial or promotional opportunities for the individual, and undermines overall organizational effectiveness.

Search for Meaning

YogaMeditationWhat if instead of continuing to embrace the money and power-driven version of success, we instead insisted on defining and subsequently pursuing a definition of success focused on meaning and purpose?  After all, few people looking back on their lives lament never having made a particular material purchase, but rather tend to focus on ways they could have strengthened relationships with loved ones, pursued more experiences of happiness and content, and found greater meaning in their lives.

What if we fundamentally shifted not only our individual definition of success to this deeper level, but if we also transformed our organizations to align with such a vision?  It’s that topic that I’ll explore in the next several posts……

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