Finding balance as a leader can feel like you are living a real-life version of Raiders of the Lost Ark – on a never-ending quest for a legendary artifact. At times, you may question whether this elusive thing called “balance” you are searching for even exists. And if it does, how do you know for certain that you are on the path that will actually lead you to it?
The good news is that balance for leaders does exist. The bad news is that balance isn’t standardized but rather is subjective – it looks and feels a bit different for each person.
At the organizational level, balance is both carefully orchestrated and emerges organically, too. We create internal policies, systems and processes that function as traffic control for information flow, decision making and resource allocation among other things. But the human system that interacts in and around our policies, systems and processes is far less predictable and highly adaptive.
Having observed and interacted with several hundred organizations over my career as a consultant, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern. When internal policies, systems and processes are plentiful, controls are a lot tighter – sometimes to the point where they can impede instead of facilitating productivity and performance The human system in these organizations will often compensate for this rigidity through rituals of “rule breaking” – sometimes publicly but more often surreptitiously. A kind of balance and harmony emerges as a result, even though on the surface it can read pretty dysfunctional to an outside observer.
I’ve also seen the opposite. When internal policies, systems and processes are missing or inadequate, controls tend to be a lot looser – sometimes to the point where the resulting confusion about how to get things done or who has decision rights seriously impedes productivity and performance. The human system in these organizations tends to step in and fill the gaps through a combination of heroic leadership acts and martyrdom. A kind of balance and harmony emerges as a result, even though on the surface it can read as chaotic and unsustainable to an outside observer.
When we walk on a balance beam or stand on one leg, various muscle groups contract dozens of times a minute to maintain our equilibrium. Balance for individual leaders works much the same way. It’s rarely the case that we achieve individual balance through big, dramatic movements. Rather, what we experience as balance is the net of dozens of smaller actions, moments of focused attention, decisions and course corrections we make each day, week, month and year.
Some people think balance is supposed to feel like the near perfect harmonies of great acapella groups or a church choir. I would argue that balance for most of us manifests more often like a great jazz set – full of improvisation, experimentation and individual expression.
Below are some questions to help you rethink balance and attain greater harmony. We’re going to stick with the musical metaphors for the time being because it’s great for your brain to make novel connections and doing so just might yield some fresh insights.
Questions to help you find balance:
- Pretend for a moment that you are a musical instrument. Describe the instrument that comes to mind first, and how does it resemble you, specifically?
- Can you name or visualize any other types of instruments that might typically accompany you in a band or orchestra? Or, would you describe yourself as more of a soloist? How so?
- Many musical instruments require frequent cleaning, adjustment and/or repair to stay in tune. What specific things do you do each day, week, or month to keep yourself “tuned” – mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually?
- Identify one thing you will commit to start, one thing you can commit to stop and one thing you will commit to continue doing to become more in tune (balanced).
Questions to help your team or organization find balance:
- If this team/organization were a popular song, which one would it be?
- If you had the option to slow the song down, speed it up, or change it in some other way what would you choose to change about it and why?
- If the team/organization actually did that, how would that benefit other stakeholders?
- If the team/organization did not change its song in any way, how do you anticipate other stakeholders will be affected in 1, 2 or 5 years from now?
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