How to Be a Visionary Leader and Still Have a Personal Life
My client, the CEO of a large tech company, was reflecting on the past year. “It was all-consuming at times. But we found a way to refocus on what really mattered.” He was talking about his leadership role — and his marriage. Business leaders enjoy the “high” that comes from redefining the identity, essence, and capabilities of an organization and the exhilaration of achieving something few thought was possible. But given its demands, the leadership role can take over your life if you let it. By the time you realize that it’s resulted in collateral damage to you and those whom you care about, it’s often too late. Many of the 30 C-suite executives I’ve interviewed in the past 18 months expressed various forms of regret as they talked about their transformational efforts, their considerable achievements notwithstanding. They described themselves as “too intense,” “obsessive,” and “self-absorbed” and often wondered whether the job was really worth it. Isolation and loneliness were common feelings, too. Relationships with spouses, children, and friends can suffer from neglect. Self-care can also take a back seat, leading to addiction, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and cardiac problems. Research by Bupa Global shows that two-thirds of senior business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions. Early signs of trouble often emerge as cautious, uncharacteristic, or even unethical behavior. Recent research, for example, shows that CEOs going through divorce often pursue lower-risk strategies in order to maintain their compensation, much of which is in company stock, after they lose some of their cash and real estate in a settlement with their spouse. Being a successful leader requires energy, grit, and courage. You have to communicate new visions, break bad habits, pursue growth opportunities, and model new behaviors — all repeatedly and over a long period of time. Big leadership roles require hard choices and professional and personal trade-offs. Some things have to give, and there’s no magic formula to make everyone involved happy all the time. But what would it take for you to both transform your organization and leave yourself — and those around you — in reasonable shape?
Visualize both professional and personal outcomes. Any transformational leader will have a vision of what the organization will become. That vision has to be vivid, ambitious, and a genuine stretch in order to inspire commitment. A leader must play the role of translator, helping people understand what will be different and why it will be better. The same applies to the self. Think carefully about what you want to achieve by the end of your tenure — for yourself, your loved ones, and your organization. Visualize this in a way that feels tangible and real and that’s memorable, which is especially important in tough times. You could write a letter to your future self or record a video of your story. Just as you develop a road map for the organization, map out important, predictable life events — birthdays, your children going to college, and so on — that you won’t want to miss. This will help you identify the boundaries you’ll need to put in place. Schedule periodic check-ins to see whether those outcomes are still realistic and worth pursuing. There’s no point in being dogmatic or inflexible, especially if the professional or personal context has changed significantly.
Discuss your role with candor and care. You can’t — and shouldn’t — do this job alone. Talk to your loved ones about what the role means to you and why you’re planning to take it on. Be candid about the demands, rhythms, and rewards on offer, and walk through likely scenarios that may affect your ability to meet personal obligations — for example, a crisis or a big M&A transaction. This will help you create more awareness and understanding with the people you care about. Ask for their advice on how best to manage the demands of the role, even if they don’t need to know its every detail. They will have seen you operate in previous roles and will know what has worked well and what hasn’t. Listen attentively, explore their perspectives, and seek to understand their needs and aspirations, too. This exercise will uncover common ground and tensions. Work with your loved ones to establish clear values, household and childcare arrangements, and professional boundaries. This “contracting” process should lead to an agreement — and a set of commitments — that you can use to hold one another to account. This isn’t a one-off exercise; it should be repeated regularly to assess how it’s working. Ideally, you’ll practice something like this with your teams on a regular basis as well. During my time at PwC, we asked questions like, “What do you need from me to be at your best?” and “What commitments outside of work should we be aware of so that we can plan and resource accordingly?” That helped create the psychological safety that allowed people to talk about other aspects of their lives that had a bearing on their performance at work.
Build in resilience. Your personal plan should include investments in resilience — your ability to bounce back after a setback or a shock. The obvious one relates to health and well-being. One CEO told me that she developed a regimen for herself that included a personalized diet and dedicated time for exercise, family, and sleeping. Sticking to that plan required setting the boundary of finishing her frequent evening meetings at a specified time. Others make choices about where they spend time. Jeremy Darroch, the CEO of the media and telecommunications company Sky, doesn’t want a wholly work-based life. He doesn’t go out much, because he wants to avoid being sucked into the London ”chatter,” which might cause him to overlook a wider perspective. Others carve out “thinking time” in their calendars and have blackouts at certain times of the day or week that may be interrupted only in emergencies. Resilience also comes from being surrounded by capable, motivated, and positive people (“positrons,” as one CEO I worked with called them). These are people who can be relied on to deliver what’s required, suggest ideas to overcome obstacles, and see opportunity when everyone else sees only problems. Identify the people on your team who fit this bill (or recruit them, if necessary), and give them prominent roles in the transformation. Most importantly, organize yourself so that you spend a good amount of your day with them. Also create networks of people who have your back, both at work and at home. These are people who care for you unconditionally, call you out if you’re acting like a jerk, and remind you of your commitments and values. Kathleen Saxton, executive vice president and managing director EMEA at MediaLink, created a “board she can’t afford” — a safe group for testing ideas and sharing challenges, made up of people who offer counsel when requested. Improving your behavior in the moment pays dividends, too. Pausing to breathe before reacting to difficult news, for example, can improve your quality of thinking. Learning what people think through effective listening and observation can give you more space to develop your own perspective. Careful disclosure of your hypotheses, opinions, and concerns with an invitation to contribute ideas also helps share the burden. One CFO used his gratitude journal to help him create a positive mindset before difficult meetings with investors and regulators. Another executive, a CMO, developed her own personal annual report — a mirror of the corporate kind — to help her capture what she was proud of and work out what she should change, both at work and at home. Building more resilience means you’re more likely to stay healthy and be grounded and happy, which will help you make sensible decisions and act in accordance with your values.
Apply a mindset of continual reinvention. As an executive, you’ll face an ever-increasing number of demands, and it’s easy to get stuck doing the same tasks with the same people. Soon you’ll be overwhelmed, exhausted, and bored. To prevent that burnout, it’s critical to focus on the most important activities and explore more-effective ways of doing them. That could include applying technology solutions or delegating. In any case, it requires creating a mindset of continual reinvention and committing to encourage others to do the same. Ask yourself the following questions:
Should I still be doing this activity or task? If not, who could step in to do it?
How well am I making and communicating decisions? How much am I empowering others to self-solve?
What other ways of delegating and resourcing would free up my time to think and to focus on higher-priority areas?
If I were an outsider coming into this role, what would I do?
How well am I using my strengths to tackle the challenges in front of me?
What biases in my thinking and behaviors can I mitigate?
What am I learning at work that could help me and others at home, and vice versa?
Adopting a reinvention mindset and approaching problems with curiosity anchors leaders in the pursuit of learning. This can only benefit your commitments outside of work, too, as you periodically check in with yourself and your loved ones to reevaluate goals, aspirations, and plans. There is a growing acceptance of the need for organizations to contribute more than shareholder value. Shouldn’t leaders and their loved ones get more than shareholder value, too?