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Leading the Life You Want

Skills for integrating work and life

For nearly thirty years, my life's work has been to help people like you find ways to bring the often warring aspects of life into greater harmony. Toward that end, my research has focused on a fundamental misconception we all have about the “costs” of success. Many people believe that to achieve great things we must make brutal sacrifices; that to succeed in work we must focus single-mindedly, at the expense of self, family, and society. Even those who reject the idea of a zero-sum game fall prey to a kind of binary thinking revealed by the term we use to describe the ideal lifestyle: work/life balance.

“Work/life balance” is a misguided metaphor for grasping the relationship between work and the rest of life; the image of the scale forces you to think in terms of trade-offs instead of the possibilities for harmony. And the idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. It ignores the fact that “life” is actually the intersection and interaction of the four domains of life: work or school; home or family; community or society; and the private realm of mind, body, and spirit. Of course, you can’t have it all—complete success in all the corners of your life, all at the same time. No one can. But even though it can seem impossible to bring these four domains into greater alignment, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Conflict and stress aren’t inevitable. Harmony is possible.

I wrote about this concept in my 2008 book, Total Leadership, which describes the course I’ve been teaching at Wharton for almost 15 years. Now I’ve expanded on this idea. From years of studying people in many different settings, I have found that the most successful are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together by using a certain set of skills to achieve what I call four-way wins: actions that result in life’s being better in all four domains. Successful people make it their business to be conscious of what and who matter most. Their actions flow from their values. They strive to do what they can to make things better for the people who depend on them and on whom they depend, in all the different parts of their lives.

In Leading the Life You Want, I’ve profiled six remarkable people – Tom Tierney, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Greitens, Michelle Obama, Julie Foudy, and Bruce Springsteen – to illustrate how you can achieve a life of significance not by divesting yourself of everything beyond work but, rather, by investing in those people and projects that matter in your family, your community, and in your private self.

My research shows that the skills needed to create harmony among life’s four domains can be learned, just as these six exemplars have learned them, through trial and error throughout their lives. With practice you can master them. You can achieve a kind of integration that will, in turn, help you have the impact you want to have and lead a life in which you stay true to yourself, serve others, and grow as a person. This integration is the key to leading a meaningful life—the one you want.

These skills may be useful, too, if you want to show others how they can act in ways that make things better not only for them personally but also for their families, their communities, and their work. You can decide which skills to focus on first, based on your own analysis of the skills you most want to develop. (You can determine this by taking this free Total Leadership Skills Assessment here).

Leading the life you want is a craft. As with music or writing or dance, or any athletic endeavor, you can always get better at it. Some of us start with greater natural assets than others—a strong body, a gift for creative thinking, a conscientious personality, or mathematical ability. Some of us are helped by genetic endowment and by what we have learned from parents, role models, and mentors. But this capacity can be learned by any individual. In fact, it must be.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted and adapted from Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life. Copyright 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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