From Our Early Files:
19 March 2014
There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.
Balanced leadership requires continuous, delicate adjustments to maintain homeostasis in your organization. Balance is stressed in every aspect of our lives — from learning to ride a bike to eating a balanced diet. It should be no different in leading an organization. We’ve all worked for a person who had no life outside of his job. At the office by 6 am, never home before 10 pm. Working those hours is a personal choice, but a leader must be cognizant that his choices affect the lives of everyone in the organization.
Balance is critical to good leadership and essential for a healthy organization. If there is no push to get the job done, the organization fails. At the same time, if the culture is such that everything outside of work is sacrificed due to long hours, the people will fail just as quickly. The short-term gains will quickly give way to an exhausted team and little to no production.
A good leader is like the fireman on a steam locomotive. If the team needs to work harder due to an impending challenge, the leader can pour on the coal to increase output. Once the challenge is overcome, the leader can reduce the fire to give the team a much-needed break. The key is finding that balance between the two extremes.
“A good leader is like the fireman on a steam locomotive.”
With decades of service in the military under my belt, I have experience being led by both balanced and unbalanced leaders. The great leaders were the ones who could combine hard work and fun into a fusion of esprit-de-corps. The poor leaders tended to work for work’s sake, no matter how soon the next deployment or the size of the looming challenge.
I worked for an organization whose motto was “People First, Mission Always”. A bit of an oxymoron, I think. As a leader, if you focus on People First, the needs of the organization are secondary. If a big challenge looms on the horizon, this type of leader makes a decision to not ask the employees to work any harder as it would impact their private lives. Eventually, the organization is unable to overcome the challenge and it fails. Conversely, if a leader preaches Mission Always, the people in the organization sacrifice everything for the sake of mission accomplishment.
Perhaps a more appropriate motto would be “Combat Ready”. This implies all individuals are ready to deploy with both personal and professional areas squared away, which implies balance!
As a leader of combat units of over 1,000 people, I had to be careful to maintain the balance of the organization. Sometimes a unit needs to work late and miss dinner. However, there are also times when knocking off early and going to eat or get a drink is just as important. Forging bonds with co-workers outside of the work environment or giving them extra time with loved ones generates loyalty and grows employees willing to work hard when it is necessary. As Jack Torrance said in The Shining, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”.
“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy…”
Balance applies to many areas within an organization. Here are just a few to consider:
Mission vs. People
A leader has to watch his people closely. They are his most precious resource. If he pushes them hard for too long, their performance will suffer. He needs to keep an eye on the horizon for upcoming events that will demand extra work and must ensure his team is well rested when it comes time for the surge. A leader won’t always be able to forecast every period of extra effort; all the more reason to meter the work requirements of your team. Due to a balanced approach, when he needs them to be at their best, they’ll be ready.
Controlling vs. Hands Off
A good leader balances the use of control. At times, a leader may have to exert more control over the team, such as when trying to institute organizational change. The team naturally wants to continue moving in the same direction, but a leader can take control of the rudder and change the course. Over time, exerting too much control can ruin an organization. The other end of this spectrum is delegation. A leader trusts his people, gives them a task and lets them run with it. Too much delegation can lead the organization in unintended directions. The good leader learns to exercise each technique when appropriate.
Firmness Vs. Flexibility
A piece of advice I once received upon assuming leadership of an organization: “Fire someone within the first week!” That is a bit extreme, but the intent is valid. A leader must balance firmness against flexibility. In my experience, when starting a new leadership position, be firm — stressing adherence to agreed-upon standards, punctuality and performance initially sets high expectations with your team. As time progresses, it is much easier to back off and demonstrate flexibility when the situation dictates.
Balance changes with different circumstances. A leader must evaluate the situation and make a decision…each and every day. What worked yesterday may be completely inappropriate for today. A leader exercises the right to stoke the fire as needed. Determining the appropriate balance to obtain the maximum performance from your team while keeping them motivated, energized and ready for the next challenge is the key to excellent leadership.