Last week, I ran into a colleague who was carrying two phones—one for work and one for personal use. It wasn’t born of a need for privacy or an interest in accumulating more cool devices. Instead, the employee was attempting to achieve a healthy “work-life balance,” and the two phones were just the most overt sign.
Now, there’s no doubt that work-life balance can be a challenge. Many business writers talk about the need to establish clear boundaries between work and life. Half a century ago, achieving this goal was pretty straightforward—work ended when employees punched the time clock and cast off the worries of the job.
Cut to today… Things have changed. The first e-mail, then laptops and now mobile devices have continued to blur the lines between when work stops and life starts. In this accelerated, globalized world, the work day now starts before you even wake up and continues after you’ve gone to sleep.
Over the past couple of decades, work-life balance has moved to the fore in discussions about performance, professional development, and talent attraction and retention. This issue is particularly important to Millennials. A Deloitte survey on Millennials found that work-life balance was the most important factor when evaluating job opportunities, ahead of career growth.
All of these developments raise a fundamental question: in today’s business world, can work and life be separated? And should they be?
In my experience, people who try to compartmentalize don’t succeed. The most dynamic leaders are well-rounded people who have interesting lives outside of work—they have hobbies, they volunteer their time, they blow off steam, and they pursue their interests with the same passion and vigor as work. And more important, it’s the values, lessons, and experiences they bring from the rest of their lives that enable them to be effective leaders. For example, anyone who has ever coached Little League knows that it often takes infinitely more patience and creativity than managing a business team. That said, many of the lessons are directly applicable to the workplace.
So assuming that the pace of business will only continue to accelerate, how do successful leaders balance work and life? A few observations come to mind:
- The best leaders don’t moderate their intensity and passion; they can only go all in. They bring a singular focus to any activity they are engaged in—from preparing for a new-business pitch and visiting a client site to leading colleagues in a team-building exercise. The satisfaction they get from achieving excellence is a constant whether it involves a work project or hobby.
- They prioritize and delegate. When the floodgates open, effective leaders don’t lose the forest through the trees but assess what needs to get done, determine the top priorities, and enlist their team to shoulder some of the burdens. Doing so ensures that no one employee has to sacrifice their off hours on a consistent basis and also builds camaraderie among the team.
- They use technology to their advantage. Where some see mobile devices as an intrusion, the best leaders understand how to harness these tools to get more done in the margins—on a commute, in the few minutes before a meeting, and yes, especially during leisure hours.
- They are authentic. Jack Welch often highlights this trait as critical to effective leadership. When you love what you do and make choices to pursue opportunities where you can thrive, it’s infectious. Authenticity can also be interpreted as loving what you do, which makes the work-life balance far easier to manage.
Will there be times when work causes you to miss a family gathering, work later than you might want to, or increases your stress? Absolutely. That is the price of greatness.
Since this is an Olympic year, we’ll be inspired by a new wave of heroes whose athletic feats boggle the mind. Many viewers don’t realize that athletes are the ultimate example of an absence of work-life balance: their training, diet, schedules—all of it requires that singular focus. But they know that to stand atop that podium takes everything they have all day every day.
The same is true of successful leaders. By bringing together the elements of their life that give them joy and going all in, they are invigorated by work and energized for life.