Leadership and work-life balance.

This topic preoccupies people these days – especially knowledge workers, and leaders of knowledge workers. Job demands are escalating. The pressure to do more with less? Incessant. Even as technology connects us socially, work seizes the opportunity to invade every waking hour. Our physiology, our human frames – so yesterday…no, so paleolithic! – have not adapted to the new way of living. They protest. [So do people who care about us.] We’re energized – but also tired. Stimulated – but also stressed. Enabled – but tasked more than we’re empowered.

This year’s AMS Summer Policy Colloquium has not been immune. Executives and leaders advising the group bring up the topic. Participants raise the subject if the speakers fail to bring it up. They all discuss the theme during breaks – that is, when they’re not catching up on office e-mail. This thread to the conversation, as much as any other, distinguishes the 2011 Colloquium from prior years.

Hearing the conversations has prompted some reflections.

First, the topic is not new. It may feel new, it may feel more pressing, and perhaps it is. But, like the poor, the challenge of work-life balance has ever been with us. And behind it, particularly in the past, has been the idea that many people don’t like their work. They go to their jobs and give up so countless hours of the day to tasks and responsibilities they abhor only to earn enough money to pay the rent and buy the groceries – in short, to make a living. Any prospect for enjoyment of life occurs outside – from hobbies, and recreational pursuits, and from friends who are not competitors. In fact, evenings and weekends may be the only times people who hate their work feel like they’re actually living.

You see this each time you get on the Metro, or hop a bus for the morning commute. You’re surrounded by courageous people! Look at their facial expressions. They’re not at all happy about getting to the job – but they’re showing up anyway, day after day.

This ought not be the case for knowledge workers. You have valuable, irreplaceable skills, abilities, and experience. You’re mobile. You can take your know-how anywhere! Of all the people on the planet, you shouldn’t be going through the motions doing work that isn’t satisfying. And choosing something you like doing is not a selfish decision. It benefits the rest of us who are counting on your contribution to solving the world’s problems. You’ll accomplish so much more if you like what you’re doing.

Second, for all workers, especially knowledge workers, liking your work is equal parts choice and externally-imposed reality. You and I decide whether or not to like our work, or how much. When we’re frustrated, or embittered, or annoyed or discouraged, it’s because we opt to be so. We’d rather be irritated instead of thankful, counting our blessings, glad to be alive, grateful to be educated, enjoying service to others, etc.

Third, we might therefore allow a spiritual dimension to creep back in to more of what we do. You know the story of the three stonemasons working on a cathedral. The one says, “All I do is chisel massive stones all day and move them about. It’s been the same, day in and day out, for years. My job is grueling and thankless.” The second says “I’m part of a team erecting this stone structure.” The third says, “I’m building a monument to God.” Of these three, who enjoys his work the most? Who finds most meaning in his life? Why should we consider the third to be delusional? Why not pity the first for so elaborately constructing a cage of cynicism and bitterness into which to imprison his outlook? The irony is that those best in touch with the spiritual dimension to life are often those who are poorest, doing the most menial jobs – the people you might think have the least reason for viewing the world through this positive lens. [Don’t believe this? Start asking a few questions of the people around you. You might be surprised by what you find.]

By contrast, we knowledge workers (or, at least, many of us) have spent a lot of effort of cramming any spiritual dimension to our lives into some small remote corner of our brains. We may for a moment admire Mother Teresa, but it stops there. We don’t reflect on the thousands like her who labor in obscurity. We don’t allow ourselves to think overmuch about how to see our own lives as serving a grander, transcendent purpose. With our rationality has come discontent.

This is a great tragedy. Above all, knowledge workers at the interface connecting society with the Earth as resource, victim, and threat have every reason to see themselves as part of a grand worldwide movement – especially at a time when many from organized religion of a whole range of faiths are putting stewardship of the environment at the top of their agenda. Great changes are underway in the mindset of people and nations with regard to these issues. Chances are good that the world of the future will see progress here as our generation’s greatest legacy. Our lives and our work overflow with meaning and significance. Why blind ourselves to this? Why not allow ourselves to start the party early?

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If we do these three things (you can merge or substitute your own additional ideas), we make a start toward transforming that so-called “work” side into something more enjoyable and meaningful. As we do so, we improve the work-life balance just by making “work” a little more like “life.”

Can we do anything similar to transform the “life” side? You bet. What do our spouses, our life partners, our families and friends on the life side want from us? To start, they hope for more of our time…and when they have it, they hope for our undivided attention. When we’re with them, they don’t want us to be preoccupied with work. So…

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Fourth, we need to relax. Going back to that physiology of ours? It was and remains more suited to short bursts of energy followed by extended periods of rest than it lends itself to incessant activity. One fascinating book that sheds light on this is The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, Simon & Schuster, 2003. Can’t do justice to it in just a few words… but the authors compare the daily and annual rhythms of knowledge workers with professional athletes. The former attempt to work at maximum intensity for hours straight. By contrast, athletes spend only a small percentage of their working hours at maximum effort. Most of the time they’re preparing themselves and/or resting. Imagine how your life would feel if it were structured along such lines! The book is worth the read.

The point? If we can train ourselves to focus…we can also train ourselves to introduce a rhythm of “letting go.”

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A final thought, coming back to environmental issues. Climate change? Endangered species? Resource extraction? Hazard mitigation? Those problems that have become so contentious, and seemingly intractable? Maybe the biggest key to making progress, ending the squabbling might lie in encouraging scientists and policymakers to focus first on their respective work-life balance. As we each get that right, we might find ourselves more relaxed, more in control of our time and our thoughts, more amenable to reasoned conversation, listening, give and take – more open-minded in the workplace.

The conservative columnist Kathleen Parker had it right in her Washington Post column Sunday morning. She defended Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for saying that, in her words, “global warming is real and human beings are contributing to it, ” concluding that “in a saner world, we would not distrust those who change their minds but those who never do.”

So, relax. Enjoy your family and friends. Look forward again to your work. It’s Monday. Let’s get at it.

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