Can Leaders Lead Balanced Lives?
I’ve had the opportunity to know some of the most incredible leaders behind the scenes. They all have one thing in common. They do not live what most people might consider a balanced life. At least not in the conventional understanding of “balanced.”
The common and popular notion of “balanced” allows us to imagine a Monday through Friday workweek that runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We think of dinner being always on the table at 6 p.m., then family time, and a full eight hours of sleep every night. We imagine getting our chores completed on Saturday, and a set time for exercise four times a week.
Whereas leaders, especially church leaders, don’t live like that. In fact, leaders would experience even more stress if they had to compress their life into that schedule.
I have simply not found any systematized method of dividing up the limited resource of time that helps achieve “balance.”
Why? Because we are trying to solve an organic problem with a mechanic solution. Essentially, time management alone doesn’t work, not anymore. Culture has changed and time compression has changed our lives. Priority management does help, and energy management helps even more, but they still don’t provide a full answer.
When I Was Young
Growing up as a young leader I was bombarded with the message that it’s important to live a balanced life. If I wanted to be emotionally and spiritually healthy, enjoy good family life, and be successful in my career—I needed to achieve balance.
The problem was that the more I chased that dream, the more the dream began to look like a holy grail that no one else could find either. This leadership nirvana eluded me and any other leader who was honest with me.
The good news is that I did know many world class leaders who were healthy, enjoyed great families and were successful. They had their flaws, but I found that even more refreshing and encouraging because I was quite certain I had and will always have my share of flaws and shortcomings.
I found hope in the fact that when I asked them about “a balanced life” they usually laughed and said, “Let me know when you figure that out.” A few were even more candid and said, “I’m not sure I know what that means, but I am sure I don’t need to fit in anyone’s preconceived notion of how to live a full and meaningful life.”
OK, now those are the guys I’m going to learn from.
As I listened and observed more carefully, there was a sense of rhythm to their lives. It was different for each one, but it was present. That led me to an understanding of something I’ve leaned into now for many years. Not the pursuit of balance, but a kind of dynamic rhythm. I first got the idea when one of my mentors in the early ’90s gave me an illustration of a metronome. The picture was of a natural rhythm that fit my energy level and desires and the key was, always come back to center.
So imagine a metronome swaying back and forth, but you set the timing, feel and pace. You can slow it down, speed it up, or even make the swing longer or shorter. There is a rhythm to it. I still use that illustration, but it carries a little too much “mechanical” feel for how I see how life actually works—life has rhythms.
So, let me offer another picture. The waves on a beach. I grew up in Southern California, in the San Diego area. In fact, for a few years I lived in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, about a mile from the beach. The tides would bring the waves in and out in a beautiful sense of rhythm and power. They were never the same size, speed, height or even force, but there was a rhythm you could count on. And the key was that they always came back to an ever changing shoreline. That’s more like reality of day to day life.
A leader’s life doesn’t fit in a nice and neat package. Yes, we set schedules and prioritize, learn when to say no and why to say yes. But life is full of interruptions, crises, changes, emergencies and problems to be solved. Have you ever noticed that none of those things fit into your regular routine?
We were headed out to a family birthday dinner recently, and my 82-year-old mother-in-law slipped, fell and broke her wrist. That required a trip to the ER and plans changed for the evening. Everything came to a complete stop for several hours so we could tend to Mom. We eventually got to dinner and birthday stuff. There was nothing balanced about that, but it was perfectly within a life rhythm.
Think about vacation. What is balanced about vacation? You abandon all life’s responsibilities for two weeks, lay on the beach and eat what you want! That’s not balanced, but is part of a wonderful renewing and healthy rhythm.
Know Your Center
The key is to know your center and always come back. For me, my personal center is prayer and exercise. Every day. That may not be yours, but for me when my relationship with God is as it should be all other relationships are better. When I’m exercising I’m at my physical best and have the energy to give, serve and take care of my responsibilities. I’ve run three miles a day for about 25 years. Well, now I’m jogging, but I put my tennis shoes on every day and do it! It’s interesting that though both prayer and exercise are work, I truly look forward to and enjoy them both, and I didn’t years ago.
The most common problem to successfully living out a dynamic rhythm is when you don’t come back to center. Whether it’s a daily, weekly, monthly, etc. rhythm, it’s important to know your “home base.” Whether you are running hard at work, or on vacation, or tending to a project at home, keep your rhythm in mind.
My family center is fun and conversation. My wife, Patti, keeps things fun. She is great with holidays, vacations and just keeping a light heart in general. I’m the “meaningful conversation” husband and dad. I lead the way when it comes to the important conversations we need to be having. We can swing out of whack for a season, but those two things, for us, keep the family good!
Here are five questions to help you wrestle this down for yourself:
1. What is your “center”?
What is the (very short list) of things that you must always return to that help you secure a healthy life rhythm?
2. What is your energy level?
Everyone has a different level of energy. That’s part of why “balance” is not solved by a mechanical “nuts and bolts” by-the-numbers system. You have to do what works for you.
3. What is your family system?
There are loud families, quiet families, big families and small families. There are families that are spread all over the country and families that live all in one town! What are the needs of your family?
4. What is your church culture?
Churches are just as unique as families, but even more complicated! From history, to theology, to ministry philosophy and personality of the key leaders, there is a culture that needs to fit within a healthy mix for your life.
5. What are your primary responsibilities?
As a leader what are the key things you are held responsible to accomplish? There is a healthy pattern or rhythm those things best fall into. There may be extremes when you push hard for a season, but they should be short term, like your vacation.
It’s different for everyone. A military leader or business leader, for example, may travel extensively. That requires a very different rhythm, but can work wonderfully. I have some buddies who are firefighters, they work 7/24, three days a week, and are off four days. It works great, but their rhythm is different.
Let me close by saying (somewhat obviously), I’ve been at this for a long time and I still don’t have it all figured out. Maybe in heaven we’ll all have a perfect “schedule”! Or maybe heaven will be a perfect concert of divine interruptions! But for now, I’ll keep praying and exercising till I learn a better way.