Becoming an open leader means becoming attuned to the intricate ways that complex and ever-moving systems structure our daily lives. As I've argued, open leaders are masters of balancing multiple parts of those systems strategically—not only as part of various projects at work, but also in other aspects of their lives.
In fact, open leaders operate the way they do—and achieve what they do—because of their keen balancing skills.
Between work and life
Here's an example of how this works.
I remember a time, several years ago, when I was desperately seeking ways to incorporate more exercise into my life. Exercise classes near the office started at 6:30 p.m.—and I found I really enjoyed them.
But how does one get out of the office by 6 p.m.? I tried to do this a few days each week, but honestly, I wasn't very successful. Out of frustration, I mentioned my struggle to a few of my peers.
That's when a little magic happened. Before long, at 6 p.m. folks starting stopping by my office, saying, "Hey, shouldn't you be headed to that class right about now?" In a way, it was liberating. By being more open with them about my goals, I allowed my colleagues to help me stay on track—and they became integral to balancing my time during the work week.
People tend to use the term "work/life balance" to describe this tightrope act. And in cases like these, open leaders really demonstrate their mastery of balance: Seeing their lives as complete systems requiring optimization, they realize they need to determine which demands need to take priority, what they need to alter, and what they need to keep steady—day after day, week after week.
But open leaders tend to bring their whole selves to work, and that line in "work/life balance" quickly becomes rather fuzzy. So I frame this form of balance a bit differently.
While traditional leaders try to achieve this balance by retreating inward (keeping more to themselves, disclosing less, being more reserved), I've found the opposite strategy to be more effective: Open leadership works best through increased disclosure.
By being clear, honest, and forthright with my teammates, I'm actually better able to balance competing demands inside and outside the workplace, because I've given responsibility for that balance over to the system, which helps me immeasurably. I chuckle when people say to me, "Jackie, I don't understand how you do everything that you do." Those folks aren't really taking notice of the entire system at work. My honest response to this statement is, "Well, I don't do everything!" The ecosystem of bright, talented, engaged people I'm lucky enough to have around me is collectively doing the work.
I'm part of that work, for sure, but things are happening—work is getting done—thanks to the system and its relationships, not just "me." If that system didn't understand my professional and personal goals, then it couldn't help me. I'd be on my own.
I wish more people harnessed the power of their personal ecosystems rather than letting themselves feel stressed and mostly alone in their endeavors. If you think achieving work/life balance isn't possible, then I think you may need to take a step back and answer a few questions:
- Do you trust and engage the people around you?
- Do you tend to want to retain tight control of most aspects of your life?
My advice would be to start sharing more of your personal and professional goals, constraints, and dreams—not less. Begin with those you trust most. I bet you'll find you don't need to literally ask them for help. Given enough disclosure (and, yes, vulnerability!) from you, they'll just pitch in.
Also keep your ears open for ways you can be a more helpful and effective part of others' systems, too. What goes around comes around, after all.
Having it all
Leveraging your network to achieve that kind of balance has ramifications far beyond your day-to-day work.
Here's how I see it. Consider what is perhaps the most popular question people ask successful women today: "Can you have it all?" Most people are surprised by my answer: You can.
But here's the catch: You'll need to rethink your definition of "you."
Because you—you there, the single individual reading this—can't "have it all" if you don't appreciate the system of relationships around you. "You" are more than an individual. You are part of a system, whether you like it or not.
"You," the individual, won't ever "have it all"—won't be able to do everything you want to do, all at once, as successfully as you want to do it. But "you," the wider system of relationships, can.
Fail to imagine yourself as anything but a singular unit, and you're likely going to feel overstretched, inadequate, and stressed more often than not. So think of your family system. Your teammate system. Your peer system. Your neighborhood system. Your community system. By doing your part to keep these systems moving, healthy—and yes, balanced—you ensure that you contribute to something that's going to return more benefits than would be possible if you focused only on yourself.
And when the system succeeds because of what you've done, then you succeed, too.
That means you'll need to be more open—more transparent, more explicit, more vulnerable—if you're going to succeed (in whatever way you've defined success for yourself).
But it also means that appreciation should become a significant part of your leadership. Ask yourself:
- Who enables me to do the work that I do?
- Who makes what I do possible?
- Who forms the ecosystem that helps me succeed?
Whoever they are, don't lose sight of them. They're what keep you balanced.