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A Bay street sign is seen in the financial district in Toronto.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Every few years, the same scene plays out on Bay Street. Fed up with an existing management team, disgruntled employees set up a secret meeting with the board to argue for an executive shakeup.

Where it happens will vary. The argument, though, is largely the same: We can do better, so let us drive the bus.

Blame it on human nature. History is full of men – and it is mostly men – who want to run empires.

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That this is the norm is a shame. Few people step back and ponder the consequences that come from running the show, nor do they ask if they'd truly be happy higher up.

Get a few drinks in some veteran bankers, lawyers or consultants and many will say the same thing: The higher you rise, the more administrative your job becomes. Going in, you may dream of advising on top deals, but once you're in the hot seat you spend much of your time trying to stifle internal squabbles and putting clients' needs before yours – and before your children's.

Oh, and every year you get to hear employees grumble about their bonuses, even when the numbers are good.

So many of us are so driven to be the top dog that we forget, or underestimate, the joy that can come from being one or two steps behind the front lines.

Of course, there are trade-offs. You have to accept someone else's strategy – and that can be infuriating at times. But it also creates a safety buffer when the axe comes down, and there's significantly less stress day to day. Heavy are the heads that wear the crowns. Compound that weight over years and the burden can become unbearable.

Too many people learn this the hard way. I was reminded of this talking to Winston Kassim, who is retiring in December after 39 years at Royal Bank of Canada.

Mr. Kassim's name probably isn't one that rings out. He's rarely in the media and, to almost anyone outside RBC, he might seem indistinguishable from the other VPs. He's just fine with that.

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When I asked why, he had an immediate answer: July 10, 1995.

During his rise at RBC, which started in the branch network, Mr. Kassim met Mike Baptista, whom he came to admire as a mentor. By 1994, Mr. Baptista had made it big, earning a promotion to executive vice-president, overseeing the lender's entire personal banking division.

Getting there took tenacity, which meant Mr. Baptista worked like a dog. Then, on July 10, 1995, he died of a heart attack during a meeting.

Mr. Kassim was in the building when it happened and the episode shook him. But as earth-shattering as it was, the event offered a life-altering lesson. Mr. Kassim had been grinding away, too – and until then he wouldn't listen when Mr. Baptista talked to him about the costs that come with rising.

"If you want to have a career, to move up, always look for a way to remain rooted in the community," Mr. Baptista would tell him, "because that brings you back to reality."

"I see a lot of people making the bank their life, or the corporation their life," Mr. Kassim explains now. "You look outside and you see what is happening to humanity … This is not a life-defining business – you are not in a hospital or dealing with a sick kid."

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After the shock, Mr. Kassim sought other forms of gratification. Even though he'd changed roles during his career, he realized he'd always loved working in the branch; 30 years ago, a bank branch was central to a neighbourhood, and he liked being close to the community.

Taking that as a cue, he added more volunteer work to his roster. Over the years he helped set up faith-based community centres, lobbied Ottawa for Nelson Mandela's release and eventually became chair of the International Development and Relief Foundation. In 2009, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

There are scores of people within large organizations who do incredible things outside the office. To single out one man is almost against the point. If anything, doing just that is one of the media's worst traits: We typically spotlight only the most senior executives – yet another reason to aspire to those ranks.

Of course, Canada needs top talent to want to become CEOs and managing directors. There is nothing more vital to an organization – especially a large one – than outstanding leadership.

But too often we assume that getting there is the best measure of success. That simply isn't true. Being one of many soldiers has its perks, too.

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