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June 26, 2024

Dying to Reach the Top: A Reflection on the Costs of the Climb to CEO

Post By:
Tiffani Dhooge
In-House Contributor
President | CEO
Children's Harbor, Inc
Guest Contributor:

“Becoming your own boss" consistently reigns supreme in Google search engines. Whether you aim to launch a start-up or lead an established organization, the allure of “the Chair" is intoxicating. Yet, much like Ursula the sea witch, you’ll come to realize that it promises all you've ever desired in return for the one thing you never knew you wanted most of all.  

As I climbed to the top of the child welfare ladder, fueled by passion and motivated by impact, it was only until my adult child looked at me one day and said, “My entire life has been about other people’s children” that I began to truly reflect on my journey, and the choices I’ve made along the way.  These were some of the things I thought about while I was pulling the knife out of my gut. 

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We all have our motivations. Some dream of money, others of power or the ability to effectuate meaningful impact. Regardless of personal ambition, I have sat across from too many leaders who have emptied themselves out for a seat at the table only to find themselves enslaved by the very chair they once coveted.   

They don’t own their opinions.   

They don’t own their time.   

They don’t own themselves.   

And in hushed confessions, they share that they just want their “life” back.   To have the margin to go out to lunch with a friend.  To be able to speak their minds freely without having to filter it through Human Resources or turn off their phone for an hour so they can be truly present at their kid’s soccer game. Despite reaching the pinnacle of professional success, they find themselves shackled by the unrelenting demands of the role and the shame associated with leaving it behind.  

[Cue the eye rolls]    

Inevitably, some will argue, “if I were in that position, I’d CHOOSE balance. You don’t have to sacrifice so much of yourself to be successful.” To which I would argue that it’s not as simple as making a choice to prioritize “personal balance”. That deadline that you choose to delay often carries consequences that may impact the life and stability of those who rely on you.   

There are countless coaches claiming to help an established leader find balance and manage the pressure of their position.  Is it possible?  I have no answers and I have found no one in this role who can offer a realistic solution.  "Personal balance" is an illusion, and attempting to achieve it only sets you up for failure.   The reality is that success in this position is a constant tightrope walk between professional obligation and personal well-being. With each decision, leaders must weigh the inevitable trade-offs between driving progress and preserving the simple pleasures that breathe life into their days.   

As a woman in a leadership role, the weight of representation is even heavier. The cruelest irony lies within the shame associated with walking away. If she chooses to leave her role to reclaim personal relationships and family time, society whispers, "she couldn't handle the pressure".  Fail, and you risk slamming the door shut for others who've been denied opportunities solely based on their gender. The unspoken rule is: “Succeed, so others won't be disqualified because of your failure”.   

In contrast, today's generation is unapologetic in their desire for a life beyond their career, refusing to shoulder the burden of an under-resourced system at the expense of personal happiness. By valuing their lives outside of work, they challenge the traditional belief that professional success necessitates complete immersion in one's job AND AS LAUGHABLE as that pipe dream seems to me, witnessing this evolution has prompted me to question whether my own sacrifices were truly necessary, or born from an outdated leadership model.   

Is it worth considering whether we, as a generation, inadvertently perpetuated systemic neglect by sacrificing our personal well-being?  

Perhaps this unwavering commitment to personal fulfillment is not a sign of weakness, but rather a healthier and more sustainable approach to leadership? 

Perhaps this shift in perspective is not just a trend, but an essential evolution in what it means to lead and the true measure of success.   

Perhaps it's time to reevaluate our expectations and recognize that authentic leadership requires addressing systemic flaws to support those in need AND those who serve them.   

As I envision the future of child welfare and its emerging leaders, I'm hopeful that they'll find ways to pursue their passions while protecting their personal lives.  Success should not be defined by the sacrifices we make, but by the ability to create lasting, positive change in the world without losing ourselves along the way.