A life in harmony

31 March 2009 Stewart D Friedman

Why should creating a work-life balance always come down to making trade-offs? Stewart D Friedman, author of Total Leadership, tells Phin Foster about becoming a better leader and why life does not have to be a zero-sum game.

It's Tuesday 27 July 2004. Inside Boston’s FleetCenter, a young, virtually unknown candidate for the US Senate takes the stage at the Democratic National convention.

It is election year and the party is gearing itself up for John Kerry’s run against the incumbent George W Bush. Our skilled orator addresses this challenge, and why his party’s nominee is the man for the job, but this keynote address transcends the political, taking the audience on an extremely personal journey of discovery.

"A leader needs to be able to frame their narrative and express it in a way that is tangible to other people."

The senate hopeful speaks of his grandfathers: one a Kenyan who worked as a domestic servant for the British, the other an oil rig worker who marched across Europe in Patton’s army; of a father who grew up herding goats and attending school in a tin-roof shack; and a mother born in Kansas, raised in Hawaii.

"I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story," he tells the wildly applauding crowd, "that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country is my story even possible."

Within four and a half short years that story had become even more outlandish, with Barack Obama becoming the first African-American elected president of the United States.

Throughout his run for president, Obama placed the uniqueness of this narrative at the heart of his candidacy. It is an approach one management professor has been drumming into his students for the best part of two decades.

"Obama’s story of growth and transformation through a remarkable personal history, and how that fits in with where he wants to lead us, enabled people to feel that they were listening to a real person whose values were derived from his experiences," Stewart D Friedman says. "He clearly takes himself quite seriously as a leader and has done a great deal of introspection, struggling to articulate his story."

Or perhaps he simply got his hands on an advance copy of Friedman’s Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. The three-step blueprint for achieving ‘four-way wins’ across all dimensions of one’s life – work, home, community and self – begins with a frank demand: ‘Be real’. This phase encourages participants to understand how crucial events in the past mould their philosophies and aspirations.

"To write about the events that have shaped your values and beliefs is something that everyone can do," Friedman says. "A leader needs to be able to frame their narrative and express it in a way that is tangible to other people. The foundation for developing greater leadership capacity is an ability to say to yourself and others, what you stand for, and why."

Obama may have passed this test with flying colours, but Friedman believes great leaders reside in areas far removed from the echelons of the Oval Office. "Leadership is not about hierarchical responsibility for the work of others," he explains, "it must exist at all levels of an organisation and relate to the creation of sustainable change that’s beneficial for all parties. Empowering people with a greater sense of control, confidence and competence for initiating innovation and sustainable change, mobilising people towards goals that are valuable to both you and them: that’s leadership and it can be achieved at any stage of one’s career development."

Get connected

As Friedman discusses the theme of ‘four-way wins’, one word is noticeable by its absence: balance. The former advisor to both Al Gore and Jack Welch focuses instead on ‘integration’, a belief in the interconnectivity of each aspect of one’s life. "Balance implies trade-offs; a zero-sum game," he explains. "It connotes that performance and satisfaction in one sphere of your life must be compromised for success in another."

The customised approach of Friedman’s programme, and its focus upon interconnectivity, dispels this traditional viewpoint. "Most people don’t really think about how the different spheres affect each other," he acknowledges. "They don’t look at potential for mutual enrichment, but it’s clear that your role as a brother, sister, father or mother will directly impact upon your performance as employer, coach or colleague. This is about providing a framework for looking at these interactions in a new way, leading to action as well as insight."

It also demands a genuine desire on the part of participants to instigate lasting change in their lives. Peer support is built into the programme and a step-by-step approach, along with rigorous testing tools, ease this transition.

Friedman continues: "There are two ways of thinking about work and the rest of your life: a depletion model, where you’ve only got a limited sum of attention and energy and have to choose where to direct it; or an enrichment model, which asks you to contemplate and pursue those activities in ways that engage the mind and enable you to experience positive outcomes in one domain as a direct result of steps taken in another."

Before one is ready to take that step, however, there comes the second stage in the process: ‘Being whole’. Having outlined your values and diagnosed your level of satisfaction within each of the four domains, it is time to identify the most important people in one’s life, gauging their performance expectations and assessing how these expectations affect one another. Friedman calls these people ‘key stakeholders’, and readily admits that this process is not always easy.

"It’s the hardest part of the journey for everyone," he tells me. "Engaging in direct conversation with those that matter to you the most can be daunting, but it often leads to two important realisations: these people expect less of you than you first thought and they want different things. We make far too many untested assumptions and these assumptions have a direct impact upon how we organise our lives. When you hear the reality being articulated, it enables adjustments to be made and provides a support system that simply wasn’t there before."

These adjustments arrive in the final stage: 'Being innovative'. "This is the fun part," Friedman enthuses. "You start experimenting creatively with ways of gaining mutual wins. Because these innovations are intended to benefit both you and the people around you, the chances of them working are far higher."

Friedman tends to recommend three experiments to start with – "one goes great, the other is a moderate success and the third is a total failure" – and they can range from working at home a half-day each week to undertaking community work. He discusses a student’s ‘jerk-o-meter’, where key stakeholders were encouraged to grade his daily behaviour; a New York investment banker with dreams of opening a vegan restaurant in Vermont who began using friends, family and colleagues as guinea pigs for her recipes; and a Washington defence contractor who recruited his father from upstate New York and moved with him to San Diego to start a business.

All these stories are underpinned by a real sense of community, mutual support and enjoyment, Friedman just wishes he could keep track "of all the whacky things people end up doing".

"The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that I spent far too much of my youth being serious," he continues. "The innovation process should bring people joy and if it’s not fun, why bother?"

Listen to your stakeholders

While the process certainly seems enjoyable, the wins one achieves can have serious implications. Friedman sees the changes that have a direct influence upon those in most need as the ones that stay longest in the memory and cites an example from his time as director of the Leadership Development Centre at Ford as a particular highlight.

"A manager’s innovation involved creating flexible working schedules for her staff," he tells me. "One employee had a blind son who attended a special school. The father had never taken his kid to class because he always had to be at work. As a result of the experiment, this was something he could do and when he articulated the difference this had made to his life, and she passed that information on to the group, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house."

"The innovation process should bring people joy and if it’s not fun, why bother?"

What might raise the suspicions of some business leaders, however, is the idea that many of these innovations do suggest less time spent in the office. Does integration not still demand a level of trade-off somewhere along the line? "Sacrifice is a part of life," Friedman conceded, "and at 56 I’m old enough to understand that we can’t have everything we want. But my clear sense as a coach, teacher and researcher is that the opportunities for discretion in how one integrates the different domains for mutual gain are massively under explored. These changes are all geared towards improving your performance in the eyes of bosses as well as dependents. Being stuck at your desk for 12 hours a day does not necessarily equate to being more productive."

Seeing the world through the eyes of your key stakeholders is crucial for getting the balance of one’s experiments right. "It allows you to have more discretion in your efforts than you might have thought going in," he explains. "Gaining a greater sense of power through realising that the innovations one is implementing have the best interests of one’s stakeholders in mind; that is how you gain support moving towards the vision you care about and that is the very essence of leadership."

The approach has certainly worked for Obama, although letting go of the BlackBerry would not appear to be on his innovations list. But, as Total Leadership demonstrates, it is not only presidents who are capable of being enthusiastic about the future and their power to shape it.

For further information: www.totalleadership.org