Great Leaders Need A Work-Life Balance, Too

“I was looking for love in all the wrong places, Looking for love in too many faces, Searching your eyes, looking for traces of what. I’m dreaming of…”
Waylon Jennings

Years ago… when I was dating Chris… who was an extremely intelligent, attractive, and successful career woman… I brought her to one of my speaking engagements. She didn’t really understand what a “professional speaker” did for a living, and besides… I wanted to impress her. So I took her to a major speech for a major client in a luxury resort setting.

To my delight, the speech was a home run. The client and the audience loved me. But when Chris approached me, I was shocked by her response. She was so moved by the speech that she said… in all seriousness… “I just learned that my life is a mess. I’ve got so much work to do. So I can’t date you anymore. But I want to buy all your tapes.”

Has that ever happened to you? Where you’re a star at work but a fizzle at home? Probably so.

I suspect that’s why some leaders get into trouble. They get so much “respect” and so many “accolades” at work that it can become addictive. And the unwitting leaders begin to spend more and more time thinking about and working on their businesses than they do their “real” lives and “real” relationships. And that’s dangerous. I know. I learned some of those lessons the hard way.

Hopefully, after 23 years of starting up, operating, and leading my own company, some of those lessons have turned into wisdom that will benefit both you and me. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Keep the main thing the main thing.

I love being a professional speaker. In fact, I thank God every day for my job. I get to help people… really help them… and I’m the recipient of so many kind, appreciative words.

And many leaders experience a similar “rush.” They get to make a difference in the lives of their customers and team members. And they may get more praise in a day than most of their fellow team members get in a year. So it’s no wonder it’s so easy to get consumed by the “role” of leadership.

But let me give you the real nitty gritty of leadership… what I call the “big truck theory of leadership.” And that is, if you step into the company parking lot and are a hit and killed by a big truck, your department or your company will… more than likely… be just fine. Somebody else will come in and lead the organization through the next set of challenges.

Your family, however, will not be fine. No one will ever be able to fill the hole you left. So that tells me you need to KEEP THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING. In other words, the family has to come first… not the company’s business. And if you ever turn that around, you’re looking for love in the wrong place.

Now I realize some of you are upset by what I just said. You may be angry at me, and you may be rather defensive. That’s okay. I’m not saying that we don’t make a difference as leaders. We do. We make a big difference. But the most important difference you’ll ever make will be in your relationships on the home front. I talk about that in my “PIVOT” book.

Don’t forget to skip down to the second lesson, a few paragraphs down.

2. Walk your talk.

Despite Chris’ disheartening response to my presentation, we continued to date and eventually marry. That’s the good news.

But then one day, a couple of years into our marriage, she confronted me and said, “I hear you say all those great things from the platform, but I don’t always see you doing those things. There’s a disconnect here. I don’t get it.”

In a sense, she was accusing me of being somewhat of a hypocrite. Ouch!

I gave her what I thought was an excellent response. I said, “If you mean by ‘hypocrite’ that I don’t practice what I preach, I plead guilty. None of us ever do. But if you mean by ‘hypocrite’ that I don’t believe what I say, I plead innocent. I mean every word I say.”

That made total sense to her and gave her a degree of peace and understanding. And I still believe in what I said above. I think that statement can be applied to all leaders. We’re all talking about ideals or the best way to do something, even though we don’t always do those things ourselves.

But over the years, I’ve come to believe my original statement is not good enough. It’s not good enough to acknowledge the gap between our talk and our walk. We’ve got to be actively… seriously… consciously working on closing that gap.

Put another way, we have the responsibility of becoming the change we want our team members to become. We’ve got to be role models of the messages we deliver.

Oh sure, you can fool your employees… for a while… if you’re a good talker. You can talk about teamwork, even though you’ve never been a real “team player”. You can talk about management, even though you’ve never been all that good at managing anyone. You can talk about change, even though you’re the first one to resist any new ideas that don’t personally come from you. And your team members may admire your presentation skills or apparent charisma… but sooner or later they’ll know its more talk than walk.

Well, I’ve got two problems with leaders who do that. First, an ethical concern. Our coworkers put their lives, their jobs, their futures, their relationships, thoughts and feelings into our hands for a few months or a few years. They trust us to take them to a better place. Well, how can you possibly take them to a place you’ve never been? It’s ludicrous. And it’s wrong. So make sure you’re walking your talk.

Second, even though you may fool your coworkers for a season, you’ll never fool your family. If they don’t see you practicing the expertise you espouse, you’ll never have their respect. My daughter taught me that. One day, when she was about eleven, she asked, “What are you doing today, Dad?” I said, “I’m giving a lecture on listening.” Her response, “What a joke!”

So once again, if you’re trying to sneak by with a gap between your walk and your leadership talk, you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

3. Refrain from affairs.

No, I don’t mean sexual affairs, although that would be good advice also. I mean the “emotional affairs” that can so easily seduce a leader.

If you’ve ever had a significant relationship with an addict, you know what I’m talking about. If your partner was an alcoholic, you knew his alcohol came first. Or if your partner was a workaholic, you knew her work came first. They were in love with something else instead of you. They were cheating on you as they carried on their “emotional affair”.

Now those are harsh words, but let me explain. Leaders get more on-the-surface power, respect, recognition, and rewards than most people do in most jobs. So its easy to fall in love with the job and do too much of it.

Of course, it took me a good fifteen years to learn that lesson. For years I was proud of the fact I was one of the busiest speakers in America, giving 125, 150, 175 programs every year. It made me feel good to know my calendar was packed and I was in demand. I was looking for love in the wrong place.

And then I had a wake-up call. One came from Mike Frank, CSP, CPAE. At one of the National Speaker Association foundation events, Mike said if anyone was doing that many programs every year… plus travel… they didn’t have a life. It was a troubling comment coming from a person whose wisdom I respected.

To top it off, when I was giving that many presentations, Chris came to me one day and said, “Just treat me like a customer.” In other words, she felt like I was married to my job, not her. I was having an emotional affair. I put my audiences and customers first, and she wanted to be in that position.

She was right. It was the wake-up call that made me pull back on my schedule. It was the determining factor that made me ask… before I took another booking… “Would this booking help or hurt my relationships at home?”

Chris and I got into the habit of discussing every potential booking. Instead of automatically accepting every engagement that came my way, Chris and I would discuss the date and how it would fit into the bigger picture of our overall lives.

Now, of course, that’s the ideal. There are times our personal desires and professional obligations conflict with one another. The same is true for you. There are times we all have to do whatever we can to please our customers. But that can’t become our habitual pattern… if that means we lose our relationships in the process. It’s an emotional affair that none of us can afford to have.

What about you? How do you stack up on these three bits of wisdom?

One of the great callings in life is to be a leader… whether that’s being a leader in your company, your team, your church, or your family. After all, it’s a privilege to bring people to a better place.

Just be careful. Don’t let the “leader” title go to your head. Don’t get “seduced” by the perks and power that go along with the leadership role. Remember, nothing counts more than your loved ones. So don’t go looking for love in all the wrong places… as some leaders are inclined to do.

P. S. Chris and I have been happily married for years. In fact, she left her career 14 years ago to manage my company. We’ve learned so much that we even teach a marriage enrichment cruise every year, and we’re coaching several other business leaders and speakers on how to do work as a team. We’ve learned to look for love in the right places.

Action:  Ask your family members who/what they think you put first. Your job, your company, your business, coworkers, customers, hobbies, sports, friends, faith, or them?

And then ask them what they would like you to change in the way you prioritize these things.