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Work-life balance. Whhhhyyyyy are we talking about this again?! I know I need to eat better, sleep more, have more meaningful relationships. I just don’t have time for that!
That would be me in 2014. As the CEO of a 100 people non-profit in one the most unsafe cities of the world, my life was, as Churchill would say about history, “one damn thing after another”. I would get in at 8 AM, go from meeting to meeting, and mentor and develop my team to the best of my ability.
Let me just tell you now. At the end of this story, there was no illness, and no visible signs of burnout. I loved my work and I was very good at it. Then why now does my organization Center for Social Innovation in Developing Countries (CSIDC) run in-person experiences that are no-tech zones, an online series called WellnessLive, and help social change organizations reduce stress in their teams?
Well, here is what my year as a happening young CEO taught me about leadership:
- Your team does not model what you say. They model what you do.
I had a fantastic team! They were so committed and so good. They inspired me to do more and more. And they watched me work very long hours. I would ask them about their lives and families and would always get the same response: I don’t have time for them. I coached them and mentored them to make time. To no avail. Why? It was the way I was spending my time.
The entire culture of an organization, especially one that is purpose driven and integrated like ours was, morphs around the habits of who is at the helm. The team takes its cues from you, even if you believe in decentralizing power. They may look at you to learn how to be in life, or just simply as an example of what is expected in this organization. If you do not take time out, they will not either, and at some point someone will be affected negatively.
- Your team hides things from you when they think you already have a lot on your plate.
This I learnt the hard way. In early 2015, after a year of unparalleled success, our incubating organization and largest donor, had an overnight change in management. They begun to shrink and cut down programs. For reasons other than our performance, my organization moved from being an exemplar to being on the chopping board.
Stresses were at an all time high. We needed to listen and communicate better with each other. People needed to tell me if there was something bothering them. As my pressures multiplied in this crunch time and I began to work even longer hours, my team started protecting me from what they thought would upset me. This was often key information, which led to differences between people, and most importantly limited our ability to negotiate better.
- You need to save up energy for when things get really bad.
What I also learned in these hard months was that working long hours, not having friends outside your workplace, and not sleeping well catches up with you in ways you do not anticipate when things are good. Leadership is a long journey. The problems that really need your attention in the world are not going to get solved overnight. You have to save up energy for when things will become bad, and they will, at some point.
Save up for when things are hard. You will have to be sharper, better, and problem solve more quickly than now. You will have to listen to people even more openly. These subtle aspects of leadership are critical if you want to mobilize people to move towards their common good in hard times.
So basically –
If you are as passionate about creating a change in the world as I am, your whole life is geared towards that. That’s just the way you are. Each minute is a precious resource that you want to spend on that goal. You feel any moment away from it, even if it is cooking with a loved one, or going for a walk is time away from what matters. I get it, but remember this: Leadership needs you to work around the clock but not in ways you expect. Time away from the desk helps you be better at your work. It nurtures you to go on. It nourishes your body so you can perform in the day. Wise friends and confidantes outside your work care have no competing loyalties. They tell you like it is, keeping you humble and moving in the right direction. And your team learns to be balanced and productive, and continues to share what you need to do your job during good and bad times.
Just running on the treadmill, or being out with friends, and thinking about work will have limited effects. Try be present to things other than work – nature, people, your body, your breath, your thoughts. Be aware of them instead of following them in your head. This will not only restore you. It will make you wiser and better at leadership.
Noorulain Masood is an international development practitioner passionate about a future where we as humans live with deeper awareness of our interconnectedness with each other, other life forms, and the planet. She is the founder/CEO of the Center for Social Innovation in Developing Countries (CSIDC). CSIDC helps those engaged in social change, and of those wanting to be part of future social leadership hear their calling, and navigate difficult and hostile environments to realize their purpose. Noor has been part of multiple international efforts with Harvard University to develop leadership capacities of those engaged in social change, and has led endeavors to produce leadership at the community level in Pakistan, including as CEO of Teach For Pakistan, a non-profit that produces leaders for education. She is a practitioner of meditation and draws on universal spirituality for her work.