Executive Stress and Work/Life Balance: An Oxymoron?

Work / life balance has been the topic of numerous books, articles and blogs for years now. And yet, in all my years addressing senior executives on everything from strategic planning to employee engagement, I have found them reluctant to identify this as an objective for themselves. There are a couple of reasons for their reluctance. One is that there is not a good definition of what it means. The other is that since the definition is most commonly defined by the listener, they do not want to be seen as hypocritical in discussing it.

Maybe it is just the crowd I hang out with, but every senior executive I have consulted with, coached, befriended or assisted in some capacity (often on this very topic) spends a great deal of their time focused on their work. They understand that their success and the success of sometimes thousands of others depend on them being highly effective at what they do. Are they stressed? Are they out of balance? Some of them and their observers would say “Yes” while others would say “No”. The truth is that work/life balance and stress management are both a matter of individual determination. There is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. However, I have noticed that these leaders have some things in common that help them achieve balance and not be destroyed by stress.

First they have given a lot of thought to their personal life mission/purpose, and to their life vision or what they want to have accomplished when they finally get to the end of their journey. I have also noticed that once they have a clear focus on these two things they incorporate a series of disciplines into their life that ensure (as much as it depends on them) that they will arrive at the destination they have envisioned. If that vision includes family, they build in disciplines that ensure they spend time with family now so that they will still be in tact when they get there. If it includes being healthy, they build in disciplines around diet and fitness that ensure they arrive in good shape. If it includes mental acuity and a breadth of interest, they don’t wait until they retire to broaden their interest and learning.

I use the word “discipline” here because that is what I have noticed most about effective leaders. They are disciplined about the things that they have determined to be the most important to them. That discipline allows them to say “yes” to the things that matter, and “no” to even the good things that may not matter as much. These disciplines also allow them to work under a great deal more stress than those who have not become as focused.  By the way, this type of training and discipline is the difference between the Navy Seal or Army Ranger and the rest of the enlisted.  They are the best because they have disciplined themselves to manage the stress that accompanies the challenges that accompany that role or designation.

Another thing I have noticed is that most did not wait until their life was completely out of balance to work through this exercise. But even those who did wait have found that they can get their lives back on track. My encouragement is to begin this process early and review it often.

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