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A plea for the relay in leadership and careers
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Talent & labor organization

A plea for the relay in leadership and careers

Jacinda Ardern's decision to quit as Prime Minister of New Zealand already triggered a wide range of reactions, ranging from "Can women really have it all?" and "The strengths and pitfalls of empathy" to "In the current system, we're losing all the good guys...". A wide range of opinions, but the common denominator remains a narrow and outdated view of leadership and careers. We argue for a more collective and sustainable perspective, or a relay race rather than a sprint.
by Ans De Vos, PhD, Karen Wouters, PhD | January 31, 2023
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The world record 4 x 400 m relay stands at 2'54'' for the men and 3'15'' for the women. That for the 1500 m sprint stands at 3'26'' (men) and 3'50'' (women) - a shorter distance, yet athletes take longer to complete it. So how come we keep pushing for the sprint as the most successful route?

We see it in leadership.

Leadership is too often narrowed down to taking up a formal position in a hierarchy or extraordinary achievements by that one hero. The bigger your 'scope of authority', the more successful you seem. Or the more you give the impression of being in control, the more people see you as a leader. With the former, we know that with more power, the risk of excesses (even toxic leadership) also increases. The latter does injustice to the complex reality. We cannot expect miracles from one prime minister who has all the answers. Research shows that in a context of increasing complexity and innovation, one leader as a strongman is not our best option.

We see it in careers.

A successful career is still too often associated with steadily climbing the hierarchical career ladder, with promotion being the indicator of 'doing well'. People cling to their position because the alternative is perceived as a failing step backwards, even if it does not benefit them or those around them. That stable, linear career is at odds with a rapidly changing world. Careers are becoming longer and more unpredictable. It therefore makes no sense to stick to the norm that whoever takes a certain path must follow that chosen path to the end, even if there are so many alternatives. This is true within organizations, but also in politics.

In short, the career path of the successful leader is still too strongly identified with that upward trajectory: steadily climbing to the top, and from there managing others with vision and authority - without questioning the shelf life of that position.

The core definition of leadership

What if we move away from this dominant view and return to the core definition of leadership: influencing people to achieve common goals. Success is then determined by whether those common goals are achieved. And influencing does not necessarily have to emanate from one person full time. This means that the baton is passed (and returned) from time to time. It also means that leadership is taken up from the motivation to serve the greater good, rather than from status or dominance. Today, we would benefit from many being able, allowed and willing to take up leadership at the time of need for their expertise, in order to tackle today's complex issues. Not only in politics, but also in business, education, healthcare and public services, a broader definition of leadership would help strengthen leadership capacity.

The core definition of careers

What if we move away from this dominant view and return to the core definition of careers: the sequence of work experiences throughout our professional lives, within our wider life context. Success then is not so much about the outcome (in terms of position) of those experiences at a given time and how they encourage 'more of the same'. It is about how we ensure that we remain happy, healthy and productive in the work we do every day, in the long term. Taking into account what matters to ourselves, but also to other relevant stakeholders, at work and at home. Knowing that not only the world around us is changing, but so are we. What is a driving force in our careers today may not be one tomorrow, but may become so again in a few years' time.

Approaching careers cyclically offers much more perspective. To people who, in a context of longer careers, sometimes no longer know how to run that sprint to the end. To organizations, to give more oxygen to the careers of their employees and in this way strengthen productivity and engagement. And also in politics, where embracing a broader definition of career success sets an example that cannot be underestimated.

Leadership and careers in the broadest sense of the word

For us, Jacinda takes the broad definition of leadership to heart. By asking herself, "Am I still the right person for this job?" and by trusting that there are other people who can take up the baton. By not taking her position as a given, but evaluating it against what matters to her, at this point in her life, and acting accordingly and ensuring a good handover, she is a paragon of conscious career engagement and sustainability. She has made an impact through her leadership, which she is now indefinitely shifting elsewhere. She is setting a new standard. There is no single ideal image of the leader or the successful career.

It is individuals who initiate systemic change. But at the same time, the system remains very tenacious. The commotion over Jacinda's departure shows how much she goes against what the system expects. And the persistence of that system also means that career choices are sometimes drastic and can only be made by those strong enough to disregard the norm.

We, along with Jacinda Ardern, opt for the relay. Rest assured, her leadership does not end with her stepping down as prime minister. And who knows, maybe her career will bring her back to that role in 10 or 20 years, with more energy than if she had been doing 'more of the same' all these years.

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