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how to survive life as a leader


Leaders must prepare for the axe – and wield it with compassion 

Published 26 September 2023 in Leadership • 8 min read

Anita Sundby flew high in a male-dominated, workaholic corporate world before her company let her go without any explanation. Now, having interviewed dozens of former CEOs, she offers advice on how to survive a life as a leader – including getting fired – without losing yourself.

It took getting fired for me to realize something was deeply wrong with my life – but it took a front-page interview about my experience to find out I was far from alone.

Somewhere, halfway through my executive career, a senior leader pulled me aside and said, “Anita, you have to lower your voice, speak more slowly, and adapt to become one of us.” Being a successful female executive in an environment crafted by men, for men – in my case in the fast-moving consumer goods, packaging, and waste and renewables industries – meant I had to understand how to behave as a “masculine” leader to gain access to that world.

It was a game I learned to play well, and I enjoyed the performance. I wanted approval. I wanted to win. It became my proud corporate mask, and I climbed the ladder and delivered the results. I loved my jobs, and the power and access they gave me. For example, as Managing Director for two territories at Elopak, an international supplier of liquid food packaging, I drove strategic turnarounds and won new business to ensure Norway and Sweden remained among the firm’s most profitable units.

I was in the room, part of that cynical, fake environment, where everyone plays a role, blindly follows the leader, and lives silently in fear of being fired.

The years went by and, at some point, that approach to leadership life – which, for many of us at the top, is all too common – started to take its toll: The 19-hour days managing two business units, the endless travel away from family and friends, the ill health, kept at bay with endless prescriptions for antibiotics, and the malnutrition and hair loss from never eating properly. I would go to the bathroom at lunchtime for a few minutes, sit in the cubicle, wolf down a snack, and obsessively answer emails. Of course, caught up in the cyclone, I couldn’t see that I had lost myself – the person I really was, the leader I wanted to be.

And then, out of nowhere, during one of several stints as a successful executive for a multinational company, it all came crashing down around me.

My boss called me into his office. “Anita, we have come to the end of the road,” he said, uncomfortably.

“Please repeat that,” I replied, astonished.

“We have come to the end of the road.”

I froze. It was impossible to understand what was happening or why. My performance was as good as anyone else’s. There was no warning that this was coming. I was stunned. Despite the shock, I knew my rights. I left the company with a healthy payout, but there was no explanation to give me the closure I needed. And the money did nothing to shake the humiliation out of me.

From hiding the truth to sharing stories

To cover my shame, I kept the whole thing secret. I lied to my husband, friends, and neighbors, who would see me leave in my car each day as normal. But I wasn’t going to the office; I spent days on end pretending to be at work. I spiraled. I had lost the entire identity I had crafted for myself. I did not know who I was any more.

It was only through gathering the courage, at last, to talk to a few other CEOs who had lost their jobs that I realized I was not alone. At first, we were like bars of soap, sliding around each other and boasting about the incredible performance we had delivered. But then a deeper, shared truth surfaced. We started to open up about the trauma of our experiences, particularly our exits, as leaders in toxic corporate cultures. My experience felt like a fairy tale compared to some of the brutal stories I heard about the rise and fall of leaders across Europe – treated like God-like geniuses one moment, and village idiots the next.

I wrote a column for one of Norway’s largest business papers about what had happened to me, which turned into a front-page interview – “Leader shame” – that changed my life. My phone exploded with messages and calls. Scores of former executives wanted to share their stories with me.

“Organizations must allow, enable, and encourage their leaders to live full and balanced lives, so that they can bring their best, authentic selves to work.”

So, I got to work. I interviewed more than 70 former CEOs, and these conversations formed the basis for my book, What Leaders Don’t Talk About, which we plan to publish in English soon. What I discovered through talking to people who, like me, had climbed to the top of the career ladder only to have it kicked out from under them, was shocking.

One particular story springs to mind. The former CEO of one of Norway’s largest TV stations found out he had been fired while he was gardening at home when journalists arrived en masse to ask for his reaction – he had no idea he had lost his job. A few months earlier, he had been supposed to launch a TV show called Temptation Island but had refused to do so as it went against his values. After a discussion with the owners, he was promised a transfer elsewhere in Europe, but instead was fired without warning.

Don’t get me wrong, it is part of daily life as a CEO to expect that the shadow of the axe will creep across the back of your neck at some point. That is inevitable, and we all know it. The problem is not the doomed outcome, nor the uncertainty of its timing, but the way it is handled.

Those interviews revealed the shame, fear, and cowardice at the top of so many organizations and the disrespectful, humanity-free way leaders get fired. Firing someone is a skill, and board members or other leaders who may have to deliver the bad news might not have those skills, or the emotional intelligence, to handle it well. It can be an ugly, traumatic process that damages the target unnecessarily and sends a negative signal throughout your organization and to the outside world.

At the same time, leaders can pay a heavy price for giving all they have or changing who they are to capture a seat at the decision-making table, without thinking about what is at stake and what will happen to their lives when it all crashes down. It’s a costly trade-off that only comes home to roost when you are not in that seat of power anymore.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Organizations can do better at managing exit processes and supporting leaders to be whole humans, executive teams can do more to support each other and to diffuse toxic cultures, and existing or aspiring leaders can manage their lives in a healthier way and prepare for the exit.

How organizations can fire leaders in a humane, professional way

It is vital for the individuals delivering the unwelcome news to have the skills, manner, and experience to manage the process in a professional, humane, and structured way. It is alarming how often this is not the case. At base level, these should be attributes that top leaders are required to have, with support from qualified HR staff and a sympathetic board. How do you get there? Have the conversation: What is our process for firing top management? How do we want to do this? What do we want our company to be known for?

Firing someone is a skill, and board members or other leaders who may have to deliver the bad news might not have those skills, or the emotional intelligence, to handle it well

When it happens, there needs to be honesty too. That means an explanation of why this is “the end of the road” and helping the exiting executive understand the process. And, underlying all this, organizations must allow, enable, and encourage their leaders to live full and balanced lives, so that they can bring their best, authentic selves to work and then adjust to life after leadership in a healthy way.

How management teams can lose the toxicity

Executive team members often don’t know each other very well. There is tension in the room, fueled by over-competitiveness and fear. How can you be safe, build a strong team, and be yourself as a member of one of these leader groups in that kind of environment? Take time to build those relationships in normal settings, not just an awkward team retreat to the mountains. Encourage honesty. Get to know each other. Do the small things on a regular basis to make it feel natural: grab a coffee or go for a walk after work and share experiences from the day.

How executives can lead, and leave, in a healthier way

I don’t think enough aspiring business leaders reflect deeply enough on what they are about to get themselves into, and how they are going to manage that demanding way of life. Do you really want to be a top executive? If so, why?

Start with those questions. Is it about the power, the personal office, or are you passionate about leading people? What will define you as a leader? What are your values? By developing and reflecting on your own approach to leadership, you can understand what is at stake and how to manage your life in a healthier way to reach your goals. You will have to compromise to succeed, so decide what that compromise will be and where to draw the line. Don’t build your life around your career; build your career around your life.

Leadership is a continuous journey, so set aside an hour each week to reflect on how things have gone over that week: What went well, what went wrong, and why? What could you do better? Are you getting the right balance in your life? Are things getting unhealthy?

Find someone to talk to – a mentor to share your experiences, use as a sounding board, and ask for advice. This needs to be someone who can both challenge and support you, so choose them wisely. It’s also important, on the other hand, to listen. CEOs are great talkers. They can talk too much and forget to listen. When you take time to listen, you are learning and catching things you would otherwise miss – the things that don’t get said and turn to poison if not given the space to be aired.

Life at the top is lonely and tough, that’s nothing new. We all know that. But there is a better way to do things that will create healthier, thriving workplaces and leaders: a better way to manage a leadership career so that it doesn’t wreck your health, and a better way to fire leaders so your company’s reputation is not trashed, and others are not afraid to take up the reins.


anita sundby

Anita Sundby

Founder, One Life Company

Anita Sundby has 30 years of experience in leadership positions at some of the largest companies in the Nordics. She has developed teams and business areas, established operations in new markets and contributed to profitable growth. She recently published her first book, What Leaders Don’t Talk About, which has received widespread attention both in Norway and internationally. In 2023, Anita established her own firm, One Life Company and currently works as a strategic adviser to senior executives.



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