Just Carry The Darn Monkey!


I’ve had a few meetings lately that served to remind me about something my mentor, Joel, use to tell me:

“Heather, your job is to get people to carry the monkey!”


He’s referring to the “Monkey on Your Back” metaphor but lest you think he’s talking about addiction, regret or guilmonkey on back twot, let me assure you he is not. What Joel meant by carrying the monkey is the burden of work, the organization’s mission, the ultimate goal, etc. Joel has always suggested that my job as a leader is to influence my staff to willingly carry this burden.

A burden isn’t a bad thing; in my opinion, the word itself gets a bad wrap. But we all willingly carry heavy burdens that are positive: parenthood, home ownership, caring for a pet, education…the list goes on and on. They are all heavy loads, they all weigh heavy on our minds, and they all require self-sacrifice but we are happy to take them on.

My meetings reminded me of the monkey because the leaders with whom I conversed asked a question that perhaps you have asked many times before:

“How do I get my staff to be accountable, accept their responsibilities and duties, and “ride for the brand”?

This question is about the monkey!

Before I offered advice to my clients, I asked them to list the things they have done to demonstrate that they themselves are willingly carrying the monkey. I was listening for things like:

  • Engaging in positive discussions with staff about the organization’s vision/mission
  • Disciplining themselves to focus on the priorities that align with the organization’s objectives, and helping staff to do the same thing
  • Demonstrating an open mind and objectivity when staff bring up problems or challenges, but not allowing oneself to placate


  • Defining reality for staff and colleagues while positively focusing on future (being honest about what is possible and probable but not giving up on the organization’s goals)
  • Showing up to work each day with a positive attitude about the work that lies ahead
  • Refusing to settle for mediocrity in one’s own work or that of one’s team
  • Making tough or unpopular decisions if they are needed to support the organization’s goals
  • Always communicating or otherwise demonstrating that “we” are in this together
  • Putting one’s own opinions or priorities aside and instead, expend that valuable energy for the organization

The above examples aren’t gigantic demonstrates of leadership…willingly carrying the monkey is demonstrated by consistently doing the little things.

After my client’s attempts to list the things they have done to prove they willingly carry the monkey, I asked them to list the things they have done which may demonstrate an unwillingness to do so. Notwithstanding the absence of the above items, I was listening for things like:

  • Complaining about anything!  (Lack of resources, an “out of touch” Board of Directors, “ridiculous” executive direction, not enough time, broken processes, unrealistic expectations…the list goes on and on.)
  • Allowing staff to complain…and continue to complain about anything without meeting with them to identify an effective plan for correctionmad monkey
  • Badmouthing the organization, its network or stakeholders in any way
  • Making or allowing for excuses for things like allocation of resources not aligned with vision/mission, failure to meet work/behavior standards, etc.
  • Expressing dislike or unrest regarding the burdens placed on him/herself by the organization (in other words, talking about the monkey in a negative manner)
  • Communicating, either directly or indirectly, that he/she can or is no longer willing to “do it” (in other words, admitting he/she doesn’t want to carry the monkey)

Unfortunately, some of my clients offered examples similar to ones offered above.


What about you?

Of the two bulleted lists above, which items best reflect how you are at work?


As a reminder, my clients were all asking me how they could get their staff to willingly carry the monkey.

My advice came easily – and as I wrap up this post, I offer to you what I offered to them:

“Lead by example!

As a leader, that big hairy monkey on your back is the organization’s monkey and you need to willingly carry it.

This means that before you walk out of the door each morning, you need to check yourself. Your “look,” your attitude, your priorities, your energy – are you willing to hand all of it over for the sake of your organization?  

If the answer is yes, commit to doing things similar to those listed in the first bulleted list.

If the answer is no, resign! 

Yes, resign.

As a leader, you don’t have the right to simply show up.

Your unwillingness to carry the monkey doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you the wrong person.

It’s ok; resign today and find a monkey you are willing to carry. You’ll be a better leader because of it.”



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