You Don’t Need to be a Leader to be Successful or Happy

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

I grew up with a lot of traditional old-time-y sayings that encouraged hard work. Expressions like: “There are two kinds of people in the world, leaders and followers. Leaders push the world and followers sit back and enjoy the ride. Which one do you want to be?”

From resumes to internal employee reviews, business rewards workers who can sell their leadership qualities. In our culture, there is little acceptance for those who do not want to change the world. Those who want to enjoy their work and be good at it, but also have a family life or hobbies outside of their work are looked down upon. Popular business books ask, “If you aren’t reinventing yourself, your image, your brand, then what are you doing?”

When did being “good” become not enough?

Most of us were raised in communities that rewarded leadership, extroversion, and Type-A personalities. Not only does having too many leaders create dysfunction, not everyone is looking to be a CEO or a leader on a team. So where does that leave those people who want to be a contributing member of a team, enjoy their work, but at the end of the day be able to go home and put their work on the back burner?


The Fisherman Fable

The fisherman fable is a business story that has been told so many times, its origin is unknown. Paulo Coelho, the famous Brazilian novelist, claims that it is a classic Brazilian story, though different versions appear in other cultures. Many scholars cite the German author Heinrich Böll. Still, others make the argument that Böll merely popularized the spoken word story by putting it down on paper and its roots are in a Buddhist or Russian fable. Regardless of origin, I am going to share the version of the story I remember being told.

A wealthy businessman was vacationing on a small island in the Pacific. From his hotel room, he saw a fisherman walk to the beach every morning and row out to sea. A few hours later, the fisherman would return with his boat filled with his morning catch.

One morning, the businessman left his hotel room and met the fisherman on the beach. He said, “Your skills are very impressive. You can catch an entire boatload of fish in one morning.”

The fisherman nodded and accepted the praise.

The businessman continued, “Why do you only fish in the morning? Why not drop off your catch and go out a second or third time?”

The fisherman shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I don’t need any more fish. What I catch is enough for my family to eat and sell at the market.”

The businessman thought for a moment and asked, “What do you do the rest of the day?”

The fisherman replied, “Well, I wake up in the morning and go fish. And then I go home and have lunch with my partner. In the afternoon, my children come home from school and we play before dinner. In the evening, we join our friends and neighbors in town for a drink. We sing, dance, tell jokes, and catch up on the village gossip.”

The businessman smiled and said, “You are a lucky man. But, you see you could be luckier. I am a business development manager at a very impressive company and I’m going to give you some advice to be more successful.”

The fisherman stood and listened.

“You should spend more time fishing,” the businessman started, “You should be going out two or three times instead of just once so you can catch as many fish as you can, so you can make a bigger profit. When you have enough saved up, you can buy a bigger boat and with a bigger boat comes more fish per trip. With those profits you can buy more boats, so you have a fleet of fishing boats. With that, you can set up your own processing facility.”

The fisherman scratched his head, “Why would I do that?”

“So you can clean the fish, process the meat, and sell abroad,” the businessman replied. “You are living on a gold mine here; don’t you get it? The company will get so big you can sell it or go public. You’ll make millions!”

“Why would I want to do that?” the fisherman asked.

“So you can retire and never need to work again! You can move into a big house, wake up in the morning and go fishing, and have enough time to play with your kids and spend time with your wife. And then at night you can watch the sunset, go into town with your buddies and drink, sing, and dance.”

The fisherman looked down at the net in his hands and then over to the small rowboat filled with all his fishing gear. His eyes met the businessman. Puzzled, the fisherman said, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?”


You Don’t Need to be a Leader to be Successful or Happy

Like the fisherman fable, there is something to be said for enjoying the work you do. I believe everyone has the potential to be a leader, however, many choose not to act on their potential because their goals do not include leadership. Not everyone wants to be a manager of people, some would rather focus on growing a skill or working on tasks independently. It takes all kinds of people to make this world turn, not just leaders.

Some vocations are as good as a vacation because each morning you wake up excited for the day ahead. Too often, we work hard so we can enjoy a few hours of peace, but those few hours of relaxation are often interrupted by thoughts of work to do the next day, so you never get a break from the stress.

As you are discovering where you fit in your organization or career, ask yourself these three questions:

Why do you do what you do? If you take a leadership role you don’t want, you probably won’t be effective. Instead, you will be a burden on the company and you will be taking an opportunity from someone who could use it to excel in their career. More importantly, you won’t be utilizing your own potential.

Is this a career or a job? Are you a leader out of the pride you have for the project you are working on, or, is this job a paycheck J-O-B? There is no shame in working a “paycheck” job, but make sure you are putting in the hours and/or energy expected for that position.

What is the time commitment? If you are working on moving up at your company or in the industry, you need to increase your time and effort. It’s easy to talk about making progress, but to move ahead, you need to buckle down and do the work. Make sure you are putting in the right amount of time to achieve the goals you have set for yourself.


If your goal is to become a VP or CEO, keep in mind that every career has pluses and minuses, and the minuses should be tolerable. If you can accept the challenges that come along with a leadership position, by all means, go for it! What’s important is finding a career where you can grow and follow your passion.


Key Takeaways

  • Becoming a leader and being viewed by others as a success may not be satisfying to you.
  • Being good at something, enjoying your craft, and having a balance between your work and personal life is a fine goal.
  • Work at what makes you happy, not what makes others happy.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

Looking for more like this? You'll find it in the book Age of Agility

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