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How To Lead A Business And Live A Sustainable Life

Contributor: Stew Friedman
Posted: October 30, 2017

The common wisdom says that real success as an entrepreneurial leader requires 100% devotion to your enterprise.  Nothing else can matter or get in the way, right?  Wrong.

Our decades-long research at the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project – the main ideas from which have been put into practice and proven in organizations worldwide in a program called Total Leadership – indicates there is another way. This alternative path, a lot more frequent in the real world than most people think, can result in both fruitful businesses and meaningful lives enriched by genuine commitments to family, community, and the private world of your mind, body, and spirit.

Total Leadership

I am not suggesting that anyone can have it all – all at once, that is – for “balance” at any one moment is impossible. Over the course of your life, however, it surely is realistic, and a boon to your business dreams, for you to pursue harmony among the different parts of life, even if you are not devoting equal amounts of your attention to all of them simultaneously.

A few years ago I profiled six significant people in my book Leading the Life You Want (and researched hundreds of others) – Tom Tierney, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, Eric Greitens, Julie Foudy, and Bruce Springsteen. 

Their biographies show it’s not only feasible to have a sustainable life in which your family, community, and private self are nourished while building a successful enterprise, serving the public, or captivating the world with your athletic or artistic achievement.  These other aspects of life are the very sources of the courage, support, and willingness to persist in the face of failure and resistance that everyone needs for a truly successful business life.

Pursuing this path requires conscious investment in clarifying what matters most to you, respecting the relationships that matter not just at work but in other parts of your life too, and continually experimenting with new ways of getting things done that are designed to improve performance at work, at home, in the community, and for yourself. 

Yes, you have to make all kinds of sacrifices, work hard, prepare incessantly…and be lucky.  But, as our evidence shows, the mindful pursuit of what I call “four-way wins” – better performance in all domains of life – can realistically lead to greater success, over the course of a life; one more sustainable and richer than that characterized in the traditional tale of constant and complete fealty to the business gods.

As I'll outline at this year's Humanification event at the World Business Forum 2017, it takes a certain set of leadership skills that anyone can develop (and it’s never too late to start), and a mindset characterized by the belief that leading a one-dimensional life works against the prospects of your long-term entrepreneurial success.  I’ll list these skills below and invite you to assess yourself on how well you’ve developed them at this free site, where you can find practical exercises for how to incorporate these skills in your leadership repertoire.

Be Real – Do you act with authenticity by clarifying your values and your vision?

  • Know what matters.
  • Embody values consistently.
  • Align actions with values.
  • Convey values with stories.
  • Envision your legacy.
  • Hold yourself accountable.

Be Whole – Do you act with integrity by respecting the whole person?

  • Clarify expectations.
  • Help others.
  • Build supportive networks.
  • Apply all your resources.
  • Manage boundaries intelligently.
  • Weave disparate strands.

Be Innovative – Do you act with creativity by continually experimenting with how things get done?

  • Focus on results, not time.
  • Resolve conflicts among domains.
  • Challenge the status quo.
  • See new ways of doing things.
  • Embrace change courageously.
  • Create cultures of innovation.

It’s not easy to develop these skills, but the more you invest in doing so, the more capable you’ll be as a leader – someone who mobilizes people toward valued goals – who performs well in all parts of life.  You do not have to be a slave to your business for it to grow and prosper.  I know there are many highly visible examples that seem to suggest that it’s always an “either/or” matter, but scratch the surface and you’ll find it’s more often a matter of “both/and more.”

There are countless examples, in addition to the ones I describe and analyze in my book, of smart and successful entrepreneurs who prove the point. 

To name just of few of those I happen to know, there’s Neil Blumenthal, who co-founded Warby Parker as a mission-driven for-profit company; Jordan Bookey, who co-founded ZooBean and calls herself the Chief Mom; Sam Caligione, the founder and CEO of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery who champions non-comformity (“off-centeredness”) at work; Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of Basecamp who believes that 40 hours a week is enough to do great work; Brett Hurt, co-founder of Bazaarvoice and strong advocate of what he calls guardrails to make sure one sphere of life does not take over another; and Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods and champion of the four-way-win model at home with her family, at work with her employees and colleagues, in her community activism and for herself.

Each has done so in his or her own way, giving the lie to the myth that you must devote 100%, all the time, to your business to succeed as an entrepreneurial leader.  Indeed, the opposite is closer to the truth.  Jason Fried learned about the importance of calm in his life and built a powerful company on this idea, liberating his employees from the tyranny of unnecessary meetings.  Julie Smolyansky studied psychology as an undergrad and brings this knowledge and the values of progressive social justice to various community causes that enrich her company’s brand and strengthen her relationships with her daughters.  Brett Hurt, a leader in the world of social commerce, committed himself and the members of his organization to real, long-term vacations from the very start, a key to the company’s culture and its remarkable growth.

Balance is not the answer; indeed, seeking it is a fool’s errand. I know not one person who has found perfect balance between work and the rest of life.  Since 1991 I’ve been calling for an end to the use of that harmful term, which most managers I know secretly, or not so secretly, resent.  It connotes tradeoffs at every turn, and thankfully there are more people now denouncing it for this reason. 

Please join this movement and call it something else, like “integration,” “harmony,” “fit,” or “effectiveness” – anything but “balance”! – that propels your thinking beyond the old zero-sum formula.  You and those you influence will be better off for it because you’ll be more open to seeing how, for example, by being a better parent you’re also more successful in your professional life, or how by taking care of your emotional and physical health you are a better friend and less of a cranky jerk as a boss.

A better metaphor than a scale in equilibrium is the jazz quartet.  The players are striving to make beautiful music together, but sometimes the listener only hears the trumpet (sometimes, and it can be for long stretches, it has to be 100% about work), sometimes only the bass and the piano (family and health sometimes are the sole focus), while the other instruments rest – yes, that is the musical term: Rest. 

The musicians have a theme in mind and they improvise, bringing their individual talents and unique voices to a piece that occurs over time.  Each musical adventure is different, but one thing is always true of the great jazz quartets: The players listen to each other intently and they adjust, adjust, and adjust, knowing that what they are playing affects all the other pieces and the sound they are making as one performing unit.

What happens in one part of your life affects the others. Keep this in mind as you take your next steps in climbing to the pinnacle of entrepreneurial achievement.  You’re more likely to get there, to enjoy it, and to feel good about what most of us value more than anything else at the end of our lives – our relationships with people.

Award-winning professor and director at the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, Stew Friedman teaches practical lessons on how to foster cultures of innovation and achieve sustainable, measurable results as an inspiring leader. His most recent book is Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life.