When speaking of professional successes, it’s common to refer to a mythical climb up the “Corporate Ladder.” Though simply a metaphor for the rigor and determination required of leadership, this analogy leaves its audience with the impression that, when moving forward, those who lead must leave something behind.

Here is where things get sticky: that idea is a boldface lie.

Contrary to popular culture, scaling the corporate hierarchy isn’t something that excuses someone from doing hard or boring work. No; it simply increases one person’s accountability for all of the work.

And, mind you, just because someone gets there doesn’t mean they’re equipped to do so. I know plenty of smart people whose charisma could work a room, but whose knack for making the sale actually hinders their ability to rally troops.

Why? Leadership isn’t a rank that unlocks after enough rungs scaled, networking pocketed or advanced degrees attained.

Leadership is an enlightened way of being that results when someone is of service.

Simon Sinek eloquently groups leaders with this enlightened sense of we before me as Leaders Who Eat Last. Leaders eating last – that is humble servant leadership (“HSL”).

For example, though at the top of the Corporate Ladder, CEOs often serve their: (1) families, (2) customers, (3) Board of Directors, (4) employees and (5) shareholders. The best and most effective CEOs are not paralyzed by the thought of less time serving themselves. From their perspective, if their heart fails to beat, everything else fails to thrive.

There is no more obvious example of this paradigm than the Executive Assistance relationship.

We’ve discussed the productivity benefits of the professional synergy that can, and should, exist between an Executive and Assistant, but there is also a biological reason why humble servant leadership works.

As part of the animal kingdom, humans are innately controlled by animal instinct. Instinct tells us that, to survive, we must fulfill three basic needs. It tells us we need to feel “safe.” Brain chemicals (the ego) then signal that safety is achievable by traveling in packs; but organizational science tell us that to protect a pack from other packs, someone must risk their safety and rise to lead it.*

Who takes the leap? That depends on a number of things, but in the world of business – the first to jump is typically the executive. However, if we know safety increases when traveling in packs, the risk taker’s team becomes of equal, if not paramount, importance.**

If an Executive and Assistant are synergistically compatible and work in service to each other, a feeling of security is achieved. Then, just as it would in the animal kingdom, security gives rise to elevated serotonin levels in the brain. This brain boost decreases brain blocks (read: fear), allocating more time and energy to increasing creativity, productivity and motivation.

Awesome, right?

Unfortunately, we don’t see that situation play out frequently enough anymore. Instead of prioritizing the team, we look for ways to cut corners and costs. This pace exposes leaders and groups to weaknesses which breed fear and give way to insecurities and passive aggression.

In fact, in 2007, the lead author of the Serengeti Study reported that “people hadn’t appreciated the degree to which group formation has implications. This work shows that perhaps we should take a closer accounting of grouping patterns.”

We’ve all heard the stories of executives who, through their own behaviors or oversight, fail to effectively set the expectation of leadership in the organization. This inconsistency allows for an assistant, often privy to the secret vulnerabilities of the organization, to slowly siphon power. Like a cancer, the disconnect cuts off the oxygen and the team unravels.

How can Executives maintain a thriving workplace under the HSL philosophy? In any situation, subscribing to HSL themselves first is the best method to encourage anyone to follow.

At companies that stand the test of time, the executives stand firm at both ends of the ladder – holding it steady and directing its trajectory. Holding the ladder steady with visionary eyes locked on the sky enables an executive to effectively anticipate the course and protect the team, increasing the likelihood that everyone will climb successfully.

Until next time, climbers!



Jenny Kitchen, EM’s Co-Founder & COO

*  “As individuals, social animals must make ego-based behavioral decisions that serve to reduce the vulnerability to predation, minimize the time and energy spent traveling to and exploiting feeding sites, and increase reproductive success.” On the Move: How & Why Animals Travel in Groups, pg. 2
**  “As members of a group, however, individuals act within a wider social network in which cooperation, competition and alliance formation require more complex processes of communication and coordination.” On the Move: How & Why Animals Travel in Groups, pg. 2
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