Creating a New Model to Make Work Fit with Life

Now is the time of year when we return to what matters most in our lives. We reflect on what we’ve done and we commit to making things better in the year ahead. What a great and powerful moment in the Jewish cycle. For without this annual taking stock, how can we evolve to become the person we want to be and build our legacy as a positive force during our precious time on earth?

Following the June publication of my book, “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life,” I spent much of this summer traveling the country, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them. I talked to thousands of people and I listened for the pulse of American business.

Here’s what I heard: There’s much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic and with no other purpose than to merely survive. Demand for change is the order of the day, as it has always been in our Jewish tradition. Now, as I step into my 25th year teaching at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I’m struck by how different the work world is today and why a new approach to leadership — no matter where you are or what you do — makes sense.

This new approach is all the more necessary given the new demands on our time as well as our evolving aspirations. Throughout human history, the sun’s relationship to the earth was what determined when people worked and when they rested. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people. New communications tools promise freedom from time and space, but it’s just dawning on us that we need to learn new psychological and social technologies, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of nonstop pressures that come at us through the tethers we call cell phones and Blackberries.

The Jewish tradition’s respect for meaningful and useful boundaries is clearly evident in the concept of Shabbat, which creates a natural separation in our lives. This tradition holds lessons that are more relevant today than ever.

But just as there are boundaries, there is also a strong need for integrating the various parts of our life. When the different aspects of life fit together as one — perhaps the essential Jewish idea, to which the Shema prayer calls our attention — then everything in life seems better.

The ago-old Jewish commitment to social justice and respect for the world around us is returning to favor in American business. Employers are learning that people perform better in their jobs when they bring passion into the workplace, when they are doing what they believe matters to the world, and when they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. Greed and competition were ’80s cool. Green and collaboration are ’08 cool.

As I wrote in my book, being a leader is not the same as being a middle manager or a top executive. Being a leader means inspiring committed action that engages people in taking intelligent steps, in a direction you have chosen, to achieve something that has significant meaning for all relevant parties.

Individuals can do this whether they are at the top, middle or bottom of an organization or group. And they can do this in business, families, friendship networks, communities and social associations.

This may be easy to say, maybe not so easy to do. There are a few simple principles that can help:

* Be real, by acting with authenticity and clarifying what’s important in all parts of your life.

* Be whole, by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life.

* Be innovative, by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it.

Anyone can bring these principles to their lives and perform better in all aspects. You just have to make an effort to reflect and grow, bolstered by those you enlist to push and encourage you. This is just what our Jewish tradition challenges and inspires us to do, especially during the High Holidays.

In the Total Leadership process, you begin by writing and talking about your core values and your vision of the kind of leader you want to become — how you want to affect the world around you and why. That’s what I mean by being real, and it’s akin to what we as Jews do in prayer — we contemplate what’s important and how to bring our lives in closer alignment with our values.

Next you explore how the different parts of your life fit together as one — whether your world has integrity — by thinking through the performance expectations of the most important people in each of the four different parts of your life: work, home, community and self.

Then you talk to these people, whom I call your “key stakeholders,” for they are essential to your future, as you see it, to verify and perhaps revise your grasp of these expectations. For many, this activity is similar to what we do on Yom Kippur in realizing and talking about what we need to do to strengthen our most precious relationships.

Finally, the fun, inspiring part is being innovative. This involves experimenting with new ways to get things done with the intent of improving performance demonstrably in all four life domains — pursuing, in other words, what I call “four-way wins.”

We need to focus on what matters most and to consciously take small, realistic steps toward acting on it. You’ll spend your precious time more intelligently — better aligned with your values, using more of your natural talents to pursue passionately the goals to which you’re genuinely committed. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, once said, “Life without commitment is not worth living.”

In these Days of Awe, as we reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your “living” makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn’t, consider taking one small step toward making it so. Experiment with a change that aims to make things better for you — your mind, your body and your spirit — and for the people around you at work, at home and in your community.

(Stewart D. Friedman is on the faculty of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of the best-selling “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life,” published by Harvard Business Press; visit www.totalleadership.org.)

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