“I suffered a severe stroke leaving me paralyzed for many months. The cause: work pressure and how I didn’t handle it correctly.”

This was the start of an email I received a few months after publishing The Broken Boss in 2014. He believed that Howard’s story in the book mirrored his own story.

When Natasha and I were writing the story of Howard, we had in mind the archetype of a senior leader who’s work story was on a trajectory to ruin. Their leadership persona was doing damage within their organisations. Their family life was in tatters. We had encountered so many stories of such leaders and we wanted to write a story that profiled the issue of executive burnout while at the same time illustrating how a narrative therapy inspired process can help leaders re-author their work story and change the trajectory.

Towards the end of the writing process in 2013 Alan Knott-Craig, CEO of Cell C, had a minor stroke. I called Natasha. We were stunned. The telecommunications firm that was the organisational setting for The Broken Boss was modelled on Cell C and the disruptive role they had played in the local TelCo market. We suddenly felt like we weren’t writing fiction anymore!

Knott-Craig has subsequently had another stroke, apparently leaving him incapable of talking. He has not had the opportunity to get back to work like Howard, our character, did.

Last week a community member bought a copy of The Broken Boss for her husband. He had a stroke two months ago. The backstory is eerily similar: a senior leader under immense work pressure.

I don’t have the stats to back up the prevalence of these anecdotes, but it seems to me that the pressure, anxiety and stress at play in the C-suites of large organisations is a looming health crisis. Executive burnout is no longer just about reaching the bottom of an emotional barrel, or running out of an ability to cope with corporate life. The issue of executive burnout is lifting its game, doing its best to be heard and taken more seriously.

I’m also hearing more stories of how in the early phases of retirement, once highly respected and successful leaders decline steadily (emotionally and physically) in the absence of the power, status and non-stop activity that was associated with their job. Retirement for many (male) leaders is a void, not the most relaxing time of their life.

These stories don’t have their origin in the moment that a person becomes a senior leader. The trajectory is charted early on in their career. The seeds are sown in the junior ranks, beginning with the subtle messages we encounter at induction!

It’s for these reasons that I’m critical of the dominant narratives that dictate who we should be within organisations. Our identity (work story) is defined by the influence of many factors in organisations. The heart of the issue is that from the moment we enter the working world we are subtly tempted to hand over the pen, to give up the primary authorship, in the writing of our story. These dominant narratives are taken-for-granted in organisations. They are so common, that we fail to see them – their familiarity breeds apathy.

Examples of the most common narratives are:
• Competition (climb that career ladder),
• Value (show the value that you add here),
• Performance (always be on your A-game),
• Action (if you’re not implementing something, what are you doing here?), and
• Productivity (achieving the same results as last year is tantamount to failure).

Sadly, the importance of this level of self-reflection is not appreciated within organisations. It is viewed as opening up a can worms that we very well know exists, but that we are too afraid of the worms running riot and ruining the pseudo-order we have in our corporate hallways.

The story of Mistrust convinces us that it would be a career limiting move to be vulnerable like this, that it would expose our Weakness. Sadly, many leaders who have tried this have been spat out by their colleagues and organisations who have embodied the nefarious narratives of Ambition and Competition.

The trajectory of senior leader work stories does not have to be like this though. I mean, I haven’t even touched on the impact this narrative trajectory has had on families of senior leaders (a major storyline that Howard has to address in The Broken Boss).

The leaders who have suffered strokes are going back to work with a different work story. Lying in a hospital bed, paralysed and powerless sparked a narrative reflection and prompted them to re-chart their trajectory. My hope is that we can avoid the trauma of the health crisis in doing this kind of work character reformation.

Senior leaders might want to explore the question of who they are dragging along within these narratives. The question of how to live a better story at work needs to be incorporated into leadership development and coaching work. Too often coaching work focuses on how leaders can handle the pressure better and meet the requirements of their job better. It very seldom asks the meaning question: where is my work story heading?