The Fat Cat Syndrome

We live in one of the most dynamic communities in the world, faced with sombre realities as well as great opportunities. On the one hand each of us at a moment’s notice can list many serious challenges facing us on a daily basis. On the other hand we can also think of the amazing degree of freedom in our country to choose and to become.

In a previous article we discussed the principle mentioned by Themba Nyathi of MTN that 60% of leaders finding themselves in positions that they thought they wanted to be in, are not satisfied in those positions. This brings out the point of this article. To be happy or satisfied in a job or career is not only a matter of upward mobility and money. Obviously these two principles may be important and even crucial considerations, but we could be doing ourselves a lot of harm by thinking that they are the real basis of job and career satisfaction. In our country presently the fat cat syndrome is a dominating factor in the lives of many leaders and they really believe that this is the answer to all their desires and dreams. Such an attitude is often reinforced by the spirit of negative entitlement that also seems to motivate far too many of our leaders.

The irony is that those individuals and leaders who develop a work, family and values based ethic are often in a much better position to achieve upward mobility and increased income than those who are predominately motivated by the fat cat syndrome. The time may be rapidly passing in our country where people are given significant positions of power and money simply because of political correctness. A new generation of qualified and more experienced leaders are competing in the market place. It was easier in the immediate past to get by with an entitlement attitude that is not necessarily backed by good character and experience.

What is the fat cat syndrome? The fat cat syndrome is categorised by an overriding passion for position and power. It is often followed as the night follows day by serious debt (as indicated by Minister Trevor Manual recently), and an expensive house in an expensive suburb. Family needs are often about fourth or fifth in line in terms of priorities. Fat cat syndrome sufferers strive after a social life of fun and self indulgence. In order to bring about some kind of ‘balance’ they may often as a gesture of good will support good ‘remote’ causes such as a clean environment and the need for transformation.

Each of these attributes and strivings mentioned above are legitimate expressions of living, but when they become more important to a leader than a positive and honest value system they tend to breed dishonesty, manipulation, corruption in many forms, secrecy, negative corporate politics, excessive gambling, negativity, selfishness and unpleasantness of nature.

Be wary of the fat cat syndrome! It can be a seriously damaging passion that can shackle us in misery.

The secret of optimizing our existing situations with a positive and seamless (moving boundaries to excellence) attitude may be far more profitable in the long run than to be continuously seeking after position, power and more money. The following story is told by Dieter Uchtdorf, a senior international church leader. During a church conference there was a need to move a large piano to a room in another part of the complex. Many gentlemen were standing around not knowing how to move this delicate and heavy instrument. One of their leaders asked the men to stand close around the piano, and then for each of them to ‘lift where they stood’. It was as simple as that; each of the men did their part and the piano was moved satisfactorily. We can each of us learn ‘to lift where we stand’ instead of always looking for the great break over the horizon.

There is something very attractive in a worker that is geared attitudinally to ‘lift where they stand’ in the sense of making positive use of the work environment he or she is in presently and magnifying the opportunities around them. This does not mean that we should not apply for a more attractive job. Often doing so may be the best for us, but the fact remains that our ability to optimize our existing opportunities in a positive manner is a major contributing factor in our personal progress and job satisfaction.

Turning back. One of the major disadvantages of acquiring the fat cat syndrome is that it may be very difficult indeed to ‘turn back’. It may even be too late in some cases. It is sad to meet people who are dissatisfied with their positions but even sadder to come across people who may have achieved ‘fat cat’ status but are prisoners of their own self indulgent natures that desperately need more stimulation all the time. They may well be in a very lonely position because in many cases they have either destroyed their family life or did not even invest in ‘togetherness’ at all. 

The spectacles we wear. When we develop a positive seamless attitude towards our work environment we may well find that the people around us and the human resource management practices and programs are not all that bad! The bosses are not necessarily the enemy, and life is certainly far more enjoyable than before. We become part of the solution in our workplace and homes and elsewhere rather than just another person who is part of the problem. The spectacles through which we see things generate the building blocks of our careers and happiness.  

Speaking from experience over many years, we can assure especially the young reader that our attitude towards a work and value based ethic is an overriding factor in our careers, family and personal happiness. The irony is that a person who is driven by an honest set of spiritual values will in most cases be happy in most positions without necessarily detracting from their legitimate ambition to improve their careers.

Ultimately our legacy is about the values we truly believe in. When we allow ourselves to slip into a set of values that is selfish and short sighted, we will pay a price that may in some instances be too much to bear. Our media reflects on a daily basis the price we are paying in our community for the fat cat syndrome that cares only for position, power and money.  

Fortunately our experience over many years with the Leadership Platform column is that there are many South Africans who are anxious to rise above the fat cat syndrome and strive towards a more values driven society.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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