Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life
In my research and coaching work over the past two decades, I have met many people who feel unfulfilled, overwhelmed, or stagnant because they are forsaking performance in one or more aspects of their lives. They aren’t bringing their leadership abilities to bear in all of life’s domains—work, home, community, and self (mind, body, and spirit). Of course, there will always be some tension among the different roles we play. But, contrary to the common wisdom, there’s no reason to assume that it’s a zero-sum game. It makes more sense to pursue excellent performance as a leader in all four domains—achieving what I call “four-way wins”—not trading off one for another but finding mutual value among them.
This is the main idea in a program called Total Leadership that I teach at the Wharton School and at companies and workshops around the world. “Total” because it’s about the whole person and “Leadership” because it’s about creating sustainable change to benefit not just you but the most important people around you.
Scoring four-way wins starts by taking a clear view of what you want from and can contribute to each domain of your life, now and in the future, with thoughtful consideration of the people who matter most to you and the expectations you have for one another. This is followed by systematically designing and implementing carefully crafted experiments—doing something new for a short period to see how it affects all four domains. If an experiment doesn’t work out, you stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it’s a small win; over time these add up so that your overall efforts are focused increasingly on what and who matter most. Either way, you learn more about how to lead in all parts of your life.
This process doesn’t require inordinate risk. On the contrary, it works because it entails realistic expectations, short-term changes that are in your control, and the explicit support of those around you. Take, for instance, Kenneth Chen, a manager I met at a workshop in 2005. (All names in this article are pseudonyms.) His professional goal was to become CEO, but he had other goals as well, which on the face of it might have appeared conflicting. He had recently moved to Philadelphia and wanted to get more involved with his community. He also wished to strengthen bonds with his family. To further all of these goals, he decided to join a city-based community board, which would not only allow him to hone his leadership skills (in support of his professional goal) but also have benefits in the family domain. It would give him more in common with his sister, a teacher who gave back to the community every day, and he hoped his fiancée would participate as well, enabling them to do something together for the greater good. He would feel more spiritually alive and this, in turn, would increase his self-confidence at work.
Now, about three years later, he reports that he is not only on a community board with his fiancée but also on the formal succession track for CEO. He’s a better leader in all aspects of his life because he is acting in ways that are more consistent with his values. He is creatively enhancing his performance in all domains of his life and leading others to improve their performance by encouraging them to better integrate the different parts of their lives, too.
Kenneth is not alone. Workshop participants assess themselves at the beginning and the end of the program, and they consistently report improvements in their effectiveness, as well as a greater sense of harmony among the once-competing domains of their lives. In a study over a four-month period of more than 300 business professionals (whose average age was about 35), theirsatisfaction increased by an average of 20% in their work lives, 28% in their home lives, and 31% in their community lives. Perhaps most significant, their satisfaction in the domain of the self—their physical and emotional health and their intellectual and spiritual growth—increased by 39%. But they also reported that their performance improved: at work (by 9%), at home (15%), in the community (12%), and personally (25%). Paradoxically, these gains were made even as participants spent less time on work and more on other aspects of their lives. They’re working smarter—and they’re more focused, passionate, and committed to what they’re doing.
While hundreds of leaders at all levels go through this program every year, you don’t need a workshop to identify worthwhile experiments. The process is pretty straightforward, though not simple. In the sections that follow, I will give you an overview of the process and take you through the basics of designing and implementing experiments to produce four-way wins.
The Total Leadership Process
The Total Leadership concept rests on three principles:
• Be real: Act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important.
• Be whole: Act with integrity by respecting the whole person.
• Be innovative: Act with creativity by experimenting with how things get done.
You begin the process by thinking, writing, and talking with peer coaches to identify your core values, your leadership vision, and the current alignment of your actions and values—clarifying what’s important. Peer coaching is enormously valuable, at this stage and throughout, because an outside perspective provides a sounding board for your ideas, challenges you, gives you a fresh way to see the possibilities for innovation, and helps hold you accountable to your commitments.
You then identify the most important people—“key stakeholders”—in all domains and the performance expectations you have of one another. Then you talk with them: If you’re like most participants, you’ll be surprised to find that what, and how much, your key stakeholders actually need from you is different from, and less than, what you thought beforehand.
These insights create opportunities for you to focus your attention more intelligently, spurring innovative action. Now, with a firmer grounding in what’s most important, and a more complete picture of your inner circle, you begin to see new ways of making life better, not just for you but for the people around you.
The next step is to design experiments and then try them out during a controlled period of time. The best experiments are changes that your stakeholders wish for as much as, if not more than, you do.
To pursue a four-way win means to produce a change intended to fulfill multiple goals that benefit each and every domain of your life. In the domain of work, typical goals for an experiment can be captured under these broad headings: taking advantage of new opportunities for increasing productivity, reducing hidden costs, and improving the work environment. Goals for home and community tend to revolve around improving relationships and contributing more to society. For the self, it’s usually about improving health and finding greater meaning in life.
As you think through the goals for your experiment, keep in mind the interests and opinions of your key stakeholders and anyone else who might be affected by the changes you are envisioning. In exploring the idea of joining a community board, for instance, Kenneth Chen sought advice from his boss, who had served on many boards, and also from the company’s charitable director and the vice president of talent. In this way, he got their support. His employers could see how his participation on a board would benefit the company by developing Kenneth’s leadership skills and his social network.
Some experiments benefit only a single domain directly while having indirect benefits in the others. For example, setting aside three mornings a week to exercise improves your health directly but may indirectly give you more energy for your work and raise your self-esteem, which in turn might make you a better father and friend. Other activities—such as running a half-marathon with your kids to raise funds for a charity sponsored by your company—occur in, and directly benefit, all four domains simultaneously. Whether the benefits are direct or indirect, achieving a four-way win is the goal. That’s what makes the changes sustainable: Everyone benefits. The expected gains need not accrue until sometime in the future, so keep in mind that some benefits may not be obvious—far-off career advancements, for instance, or a contact who might ultimately offer valuable connections.
Open your mind to what’s possible and try to think of as many potential experiments as you can, describing in a sentence or two what you would do in each. This is a time to let your imagination run free. Don’t worry about all the potential obstacles at this point.
At first blush, conceiving of experiments that produce benefits for all the different realms may seem a formidable task. After all, if it were easy, people wouldn’t be feeling so much tension between work and the rest of their lives. But I’ve found that most people realize it’s not that hard once they approach the challenge systematically. And, like a puzzle, it can be fun, especially if you keep in mind that experiments must fit your particular circumstances. Experiments can and do take myriad forms. But having sifted through hundreds of experiment designs, my research team and I have found that they tend to fall into nine general types. Use the nine categories described in the exhibit “How Can I Design an Experiment to Improve All Domains of My Life?” to organize your thinking.
How Can I Design an Experiment to Improve All Domains of My Life? (Located at the end of this article)
One category of experiment involves changes in where and when work gets done. One workshop participant, a sales director for a global cement producer, tried working online from his local public library one day a week to free himself from his very long commute. This was a break from a company culture that didn’t traditionally support employees working remotely, but the change benefited everyone. He had more time for outside interests, and he was more engaged and productive at work.
Another category has to do with regular self-reflection. As an example, you might keep a record of your activities, thoughts, and feelings over the course of a month to see how various actions influence your performance and quality of life. Still another category focuses on planning and organizing your time—such as trying out a new technology that coordinates commitments at work with those in the other domains.
Conversations about work and the rest of life tend to emphasize segmentation: How do I shut out the office when I am with my family? How can I eliminate distractions and concentrate purely on work? But, in some cases, it might be better to make boundaries between domains more permeable, not thicker. The very technologies that make it hard for us to maintain healthy boundaries among domains also enable us to blend them in ways—unfathomable even a decade ago—that can render us more productive and more fulfilled. These tools give us choices. The challenge we all face is learning how to use them wisely, and smart experiments give you an opportunity to increase your skill in doing so. The main point is to identify possibilities that will work well in your unique situation.
All effective experiments require that you question traditional assumptions about how things get done, as the sales director did. It’s easier to feel free to do this, and to take innovative action, when you know that your goal is to improve performance in all domains and that you’ll be gathering data about the impact of your experiment to determine if indeed it is working—for your key stakeholders and for you.
Whatever type you choose, the most useful experiments feel like something of a stretch: not too easy, not too daunting. It might be something quite mundane for someone else, but that doesn’t matter. What’s critical is that you see it as a moderately difficult challenge.
Choose a few, get started, and adapt.
Coming up with possibilities is an exercise in unbounded imagination. But when it comes time to take action, it’s not practical to try out more than three experiments at once. Typically, two turn out to be relatively successful and one goes haywire, so you will earn some small wins, and learn something useful about leadership, without biting off more than you can chew. Now the priority is to narrow the list to the three most-promising candidates by reviewing which will:
• Give you the best overall return on your investment
• Be the most costly in regret and missed opportunities if you don’t do it
• Allow you to practice the leadership skills you most want to develop
• Be the most fun by involving more of what you want to be doing
• Move you furthest toward your vision of how you want to lead your life
Once you choose and begin to move down the road with your experiment, however, be prepared to adapt to the unforeseen. Don’t become too wedded to the details of any one experiment’s plan, because you will at some point be surprised and need to adjust. An executive I’ll call Lim, for example, chose as one experiment to run the Chicago Marathon. He had been feeling out of shape, which in turn diminished his energy and focus both at work and at home. His wife, Joanne, was pregnant with their first child and initially supported the plan because she believed that the focus required by the training and the physical outlet it provided would make Lim a better father. The family also had a strong tradition of athleticism, and Joanne herself was an accomplished athlete. Lim was training with his boss and other colleagues, and all agreed that it would be a healthy endeavor that would improve professional communication (as they thought there would be plenty of time to bond during training).
But as her delivery date approached, Joanne became apprehensive, which she expressed to Lim as concern that he might get injured. Her real concern, though, was that he was spending so much time on an activity that might drain his energy at a point when the family needed him most. One adjustment that Lim made to reassure Joanne of his commitment to their family was to initiate another experiment in which he took the steps needed to allow him to work at home on Thursday afternoons. He had to set up some new technologies and agree to send a monthly memo to his boss summarizing what he was accomplishing on those afternoons. He also bought a baby sling, which would allow him to keep his new son with him while at home.
In the end, not only were Joanne and their baby on hand to cheer Lim on while he ran the marathon, but she ended up joining him for the second half of the race to give him a boost when she saw his energy flagging. His business unit’s numbers improved during the period when he was training and working at home. So did the unit’s morale—people began to see the company as more flexible, and they were encouraged to be more creative in how they got their own work done—and word got around. Executives throughout the firm began to come up with their own ideas for ways to pay more attention to other sides of their employees’ lives and so build a stronger sense of community at work.
The investment in a well-designed experiment almost always pays off because you learn how to lead in new and creative ways in all parts of your life. And if your experiments turn out well—as they usually, but not always, do—it will benefit everyone: you, your business, your family, and your community.
The only way to fail with an experiment is to fail to learn from it, and this makes useful metrics essential. No doubt it’s better to achieve the results you are after than to fall short, but hitting targets does not in itself advance you toward becoming the leader you want to be. Failed experiments give you, and those around you, information that helps create better ones in the future.
The exhibit “How Do I Know If My Experiment Is Working?” shows how Kenneth Chen measured his progress. He used this simple chart to spell out the intended benefits of his experiment in each of the four domains and how he would assess whether he had realized these benefits. To set up your own scorecard, use a separate sheet for each experiment; at the top of the page, write a brief description of it. Then record your goals for each domain in the first column. In the middle column, describe your results metrics: how you will measure whether the goals for each domain have been achieved. In the third column, describe your action metrics—the plan for the steps you will take to implement your experiment. As you begin to implement your plan, you may find that your initial indicators are too broad or too vague, so refine your scorecard as you go along to make it more useful for you. The main point is to have practical ways of measuring your outcomes and your progress toward them, and the approach you take only needs to work for you and your stakeholders.
How Do I Know If My Experiment Is Working? (Located at the end of this article)
Workshop participants have used all kinds of metrics: cost savings from reduced travel, number of e-mail misunderstandings averted, degree of satisfaction with family time, hours spent volunteering at a teen center, and so on. Metrics may be objective or subjective, qualitative or quantitative, reported by you or by others, and frequently or intermittently observed. When it comes to frequency, for instance, it helps to consider how long you’ll be able to remember what you did. For example, if you were to go on a diet to get healthier, increase energy, and enhance key relationships, food intake would be an important metric. But would you be able to remember what you ate two days ago?
Small Wins for Big Change
Experiments shouldn’t be massive, all-encompassing shifts in the way you live. Highly ambitious designs usually fail because they’re too much to handle. The best experiments let you try something new while minimizing the inevitable risks associated with change. When the stakes are smaller, it’s easier to overcome the fear of failure that inhibits innovation. You start to see results, and others take note, which both inspires you to go further and builds support from your key stakeholders.
Another benefit of the small-wins approach to experiments is that it opens doors that would otherwise be closed. You can say to people invested in the decision, “Let’s just try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to the old way or try something different.” By framing an experiment as a trial, you reduce resistance because people are more likely to try something new if they know it’s not permanent and if they have control over deciding whether the experiment is working according to their performance expectations.
But “small” is a relative term—what might look like a small step for you could seem like a giant leap to me, and vice versa. So don’t get hung up on the word. What’s more, this isn’t about the scope or importance of the changes you eventually make. Large-scale change is grounded in small steps toward a big idea. So while the steps in an experiment might be small, the goals are not. Ismail, a successful 50-year-old entrepreneur and CEO of an engineering services company, described the goal for his first experiment this way: “Restructure my company and my role in it.” There’s nothing small about that. He felt he was missing a sense of purpose.
Ismail designed practical steps that would allow him to move toward his large goal over time. His first experiments were small and achievable. He introduced a new method that both his colleagues and his wife could use to communicate with him. He began to hold sacrosanct time for his family and his church. As he looked for ways to free up more time, he initiated delegation experiments that had the effect of flattening his organization’s structure. These small wins crossed over several domains, and eventually he did indeed transform his company and his own role in it. When I spoke with him 18 months after he’d started, he acknowledged that he’d had a hard time coping with the loss of control over tactical business matters, but he described his experiments as “a testament to the idea of winning the small battles and letting the war be won as a result.” He and his leadership team both felt more confident about the firm’s new organizational structure.
Download and use this four-way chart to help articulate what matters to you most.
Download and use this work sheet to plan small experiments that will improve all four areas of your life.
• • •
People try the Total Leadership program for a variety of reasons. Some feel unfulfilled because they’re not doing what they love. Some don’t feel genuine because they’re not acting according to their values. Others feel disconnected, isolated from people who matter to them. They crave stronger relationships, built on trust, and yearn for enriched social networks. Still others are just in a rut. They want to tap into their creative energy but don’t know how (and sometimes lack the courage) to do so. They feel out of control and unable to fit in all that’s important to them.
My hunch is that there are more four-way wins available to you than you’d think. They are there for the taking. You have to know how to look for them and then find the support and zeal to pursue them. By providing a blueprint for how you can be real, be whole, and be innovative as a leader in all parts of your life, this program helps you perform better according to the standards of the most important people in your life; feel better in all the domains of your life; and foster greater harmony among the domains by increasing the resources available to you to fit all the parts of your life together. No matter what your career stage or current position, you can be a better leader and have a richer life—if you are ready and willing to rise to the challenge.
How Can I Design an Experiment to Improve All Domains of My Life?
Our research has revealed that most successful experiments combine components of nine general categories. Thinking about possibilities in this way will make it easier for you to conceive of the small changes you can make that will mutually benefit your work, your home, your community, and yourself. Most experiments are a hybrid of some combination of these categories.
Tracking and Reflecting
Keeping a record of activities, thoughts, and feelings (and perhaps distributing it to friends, family, and coworkers) to assess progress on personal and professional goals, thereby increasing self-awareness and maintaining priorities.
• Record visits to the gym along with changes in energy levels
• Track the times of day when you feel most engaged or most lethargic
Planning and Organizing
Taking actions designed to better use time and prepare and plan for the future.
• Use a PDA for all activities, not just work
• Share your schedule with someone else
• Prepare for the week on Sunday evening
Rejuvenating and Restoring
Attending to body, mind, and spirit so that the tasks of daily living and working are undertaken with renewed power, focus, and commitment.
• Quit unhealthy physical habits (smoking, drinking)
• Make time for reading a novel
• Engage in activities that improve emotional and spiritual health (yoga, meditation, etc.)
Appreciating and Caring
Having fun with people (typically, by doing things with coworkers outside work), caring for others, and appreciating relationships as a way of bonding at a basic human level to respect the whole person, which increases trust.
• Join a book group or health club with coworkers
• Help your son complete his homework
• Devote one day a month to community service
Focusing and Concentrating
Being physically present, psychologically present, or both when needed to pay attention to stakeholders who matter most. Sometimes this means saying no to opportunities or obligations. Includes attempts to show more respect to important people encountered in different domains and the need to be accessible to them.
• Turn off digital communication devices at a set time
• Set aside a specific time to focus on one thing or person
• Review e-mail at preset times during the day
Revealing and Engaging
Sharing more of yourself with others—and listening—so they can better support your values and the steps you want to take toward your leadership vision. By enhancing communication about different aspects of life, you demonstrate respect for the whole person.
• Have weekly conversations about religion with spouse
• Describe your vision to others
• Mentor a new employee
Time Shifting and “Re-Placing”
Working remotely or during different hours to increase flexibility and thus better fit in community, family, and personal activities while increasing efficiency; questioning traditional assumptions and trying new ways to get things done.
• Work from home
• Take music lessons during your lunch hour
• Do work during your commute
Delegating and Developing
Reallocating tasks in ways that increase trust, free up time, and develop skills in yourself and others; working smarter by reducing or eliminating low-priority activities.
• Hire a personal assistant
• Have a subordinate take on some of your responsibilities
Exploring and Venturing
Taking steps toward a new job, career, or other activity that better aligns your work, home, community, and self with your core values and aspirations.
• Take on new roles at work, such as a cross-functional assignment
• Try a new coaching style
• Join the board of your child’s day care center
How Do I Know If My Experiment Is Working?
Using this tool, an executive I’ll call Kenneth Chen systematically set out in detail his various goals, the metrics he would use to measure his progress, and the steps he would take in conducting an experiment that would further those goals—joining the board of a nonprofit organization. Kenneth’s work sheet is merely an example: Every person’s experiments, goals, and metrics are unique.
For a more comprehensive offering of online tools, videos, and blogs, go to www.totalleadership.org.