A friend of mine once gave me some sage advice, and that advice has become part of the mantra of Leadership Zen. He once asked me whether I recalled the safety briefings that flight attendants give on airlines before a flight, specifically the portion about when the oxygen masks fall and what to do. He reminded me that their instructions included making sure you put yours on before assisting other passengers, including your own children or travel partners. His message was you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.
I have traditionally been one of those people in leadership positions, both personal and professional that is very good at preaching the importance of finding a balance between work and life, the things you have to do to compete and provide and the things you should do to be happy and healthy. My Achilles Heel has been that I have never been particularly good at doing it for myself. Jorge’s advice to me struck a chord. As a professional, a father, a friend, a son, a brother, my success depends on my health and wellness, and not just on the scorecard of results I may produce in any area of my life.
The problem is, or was, that I had allowed myself to forget that, worrying more about achievement and titles and accomplishment than I did about sleeping or eating right or finding time to bike in the summer. I would easily put in sixteen, eighteen hours of activity designed to advanced those things, managing the needs of those around me between them in a delicate balancing act. What I didn’t realize was that by doing so, I was essentially cheating the whole machine of the best I had to offer. Sure, I accomplished much, my kids still love me and I am sure I am a good father and friend, but it was hardly the type of lifestyle that maximized what we talk about in these pages.
Self-awareness is a key to being a good leader, and no author worth salt externalizes their subject matter without throwing in a little of themselves. Despite my success I was failing to live up to the principles of my own leadership philosophy, which is why I believe that no good story on leadership development is complete without sharing the understanding that you cannot maximize your potential without putting a singular focus on maximizing yourself.
Much is written on the idea of creating a “work-life balance.” Simply put, it means making sure you spend ample time between working and living – making sure you are nurturing your family, friends, and most important yourself and your own well-being. In my mind, and staying true to the overall philosophy of Leadership Zen, I think that definition is too simplistic and doesn’t really capture the essence of what we all need to do to be successful, happy, and fulfilled.
In this age, where iPads and Blackberry’s and laptops keep us connected long past the five o’clock hour, and the demands of work often keep us busy into the late hours, it is often unrealistic for many of us to just “shut off.” I am a prime example of that and have been for years, running large business units that demand attention at all hours of the day. But this isn’t just true for executives. No matter what you do in life, there is always something demanding your attention that will pull your focus away from yourself and the things that truly make you feel fulfilled. Untended it can destroy you.
Worse, I feel, are those whose primary aim is to be better at work, who believe happiness is a good day at work. You’re missing something. Human beings are, by the design of evolution, social beings who require an outlet in other human beings. We like to have fun, and no matter how much you love your job, mountain biking or painting or just watching a good episode of TV are things we need. Too many of us crowd out the time for those things because we “have” to work, sixteen hours a day.
The body also needs replenishment. We are, at the heart of it, machines that require certain fuels – food, exercise, sleep – to maintain proper health. Put another way, we have to recharge our batteries in order to achieve maximum potential in anything we do. Yet these things are more often discarded as nice to haves when they are the basic building blocks of optimal performance.
Days last twenty-four hours. There is no extension. The twenty-first century model however , for many of us, is built on cramming as much into those hours without realizing that somewhere along the way something has to give. If you work for twelve hours you only have twelve more to sleep, raise a family, or get some down time. Something has to give. If you sit in front of the DVR watching an entire season of “Mad Men” on a Saturday afternoon, you have less time to shop healthy or to exercise. Something has to give. If you give up an entire day being a soccer mom then entertaining the neighbors for dinner, you have less time to keep up on work. Something has to give. You will be less effective in one of your roles, personal, professional, or self.
The problem with the world in my view is that we are at once taught you can do everything or be everything without actually defining what that means. Yes, you can have it all – that is the premise of Leadership Zen. But you can’t have it all by doing it all, because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Therefore, we need to understand this vicious cycle of demand/resource imbalance, and take control of it.
Our model is simple. We all need to focus on three things be successful in managing the self, and those are Sustainability, Balance, and Renewal. Sustainability refers to how we keep the machine going. Balance speaks to how we manage a finite clock. Renewal applies to how we ensure we are dedicating enough internal time to guarantee our external time – how we interact with others in our personal and professional lives – maintains a level of quality so that everything and everyone is fulfilled.
By the way, I personally took the advice to heart. At the time of this writing I am down fifteen pounds, sleeping through the night for meaningful periods, eating differently, exercising, and of course, writing again. I’m also a much better dad.