Balance in Leadership and Life

Dear Tom:

Hope you are doing well.

I just read with interest your article on Beowulf. It's 4:45 AM here and I am yet to go to sleep because you got me thinking.

I often wish that I had some posters on the wall to help me keep perspective in my life. The work pressure is so intense that it sometimes gets difficult to zoom out, rise above it all, and focus on what's really important in life.

In any case, here's my comment on Beowulf:

#1. Jim Collins just published a book called "From Good to Great" where he says in an interview with Alan Webber:

"The CEOs who took their companies from good to great were largely anonymous -- a far cry from the celebrity CEOs we read about. Is that an accident? Or is it cause and effect?"

"I believe it's more a matter of cause and effect than an accident. There is something directly related between the absence of celebrity and the presence of good-to-great results. Why? First, when you have a celebrity, the company turns into "the one genius with 1,000 helpers." It creates a sense that the whole thing is really about the CEO. And that leads to all sorts of problems -- if the person goes away or if the person turns out not to be a genius after all."

"At a deeper level, we found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company rather than for themselves. That doesn't mean that they don't have an ego. It doesn't mean that they don't have any self-needs. It means that at decision point after decision point -- at the critical junctures when Choice A would favor their ego and Choice B would favor the company and its work -- time and again those leaders pick Choice B. Celebrity CEOs, at those same decision points, are more likely to favor self and ego over company and work"

Here's my idea. What I have fundamentally realized is that the two personal opposites of extreme happiness and total disillusionment create a 0 to 10 scale for each of us - where 0 can be total disillusionment and 10 can be ecstasy - and once we know what the extremes are (some figure this out soon, some late, and some never), we then need to get to our personal balance, which I suppose would be something like a 5 or a 6. Different people go through different phases in their lives to know their extremes before they achieve a balance, and they get to become the satisfied ones among us. Most people tend to stay at the extremes, or always gravitate back, while, from my perspective, the smarter ones get back to their proper balance.

Let me give a simple personal example. When I came into this country, I drove a G20 Infiniti. The next car I wanted was a Mercedes Benz. And I wanted it badly. It so happened that a friend of mine who owns a Mercedes left his car behind with me when he went back to India for a time. He felt it would be safer, since I had a garrage and he didn't, because he lived in an apartment. I drove the Mercedes for a couple of months with his permission, until he returned, and then, for some reason, I lost the charm of buying the Mercedes anymore. I had experienced extreme pleasure when people used to watch me getting in and out of the Mercedes for the first few days I had been driving it, and then, after some time, it didn't matter anymore. It was just another vehicle for me.

By the time my friend came back, my interest in owning a Mercedes Benz had gone down by more than 90%. I guess I knew then where my balance was. For me, the balance was in my Infiniti - a positive extreme was in the Mercedes Benz, and I suppose the negative extreme would be to lack any reliable transportation whatsoever. I came to realize that my happiness only required my proper balance, and that my balance point need not be the same as for others.

The same thing has happened for me with purchase of new gadgets where I went quickly to 10 - succumbed to my desires - before I think I got my desires back to a more balanced perspective. It was interesting to me to see that when my parents came here from India they were still at the 10 stage though they were old enough not to be able to enjoy half of what they were buying.

I could be wrong, of course, but my theory is that we each need to figure out our balances - like finding the right spot on a Volume Control - in whatever we do, and then we are OK. Balanced ego, balanced control, balanced pride etc - we should always be trying to seek a balance in whatever we do. But the funny part is that we often can't figure the balance until we know what the extreme is. If I'm right, then it's good to figure out the extremes in everything so that we can get back to finding our true balance.

I hope I am not too confusing here. What I mean is that indulging in our desires sometimes can serve us well as long as we know we are indulging, and then we can come back. Total disillusionment can come when a tragedy strikes you and shows you the zero on the scale. But then can come the balance, hopefully, for people who have figured out their lives, understand what life is, and get to that balance. Most don't, but some definitely do.

With this as a background, and applying it to the leadership world, my perspective is: a leader who has seen zero and ten and then knows how to attain a balance might come out as a better leader than one who knows only 10, and doesn't realize he's at such an extreme, and thus sticks there, or someone who is so disullusioned that he gets stuck at 0 or 1.

Warren Bennis, the leadership guru, says in one book (I hope I am quoting him right): Twice born leaders (people like Abraham Lincoln) come out as better leaders than once born leaders (Jimmy Carter), since twice born leaders have the perspective that the once born don't have.

Coming back to our two points, as they relate the lessons we learn from Beowulf, I see two issues as standing out, an issue about improper pride and one about inflexibility:

#1. Pride: As long as it's positive and helps put the organization, its people, and its customers first, and the leader's own ego is second, then pride is OK - which is what i would call balanced pride. Unbalanced pride is always a problem in the making.

#2. Changing one's methods with the times: The key to this is to have a personal foundation of at least 2 or 3 "first order virtues" (honesty, empathy, and so on) within yourself, and also to have some friends who can offer you another solid perspective on life (who have seen the 1s and the 10s), and who can question your thought process frequently. This might definitely be of some help. Again, a balanced approach is needed here. The successful leaders of the so-called "new economy" were ones who had this balance. They were people who stuck to their old disciplined way of doing business and serving their custmers right, who embodied such ancient values as integrity, and who used the internet as yet another framework for looking at old things in a new way. They weren't people who changed everything and totally went 100% the dotcom way, or just stuck to their old fashioned way 100%. The best ones did a balance of both.

I don't know if what I just wrote makes sense, but I felt like writing. It is after 4:45 AM, after all.

If my theory is wrong, or if my assumptions here are wrong, I would like to be corrected by you, or your Institute Fellows, or any of your Website visitors who are smarter than me! I really want to hear from people about my "balance theory" - about how everyone should figure out what their balances in life are and then go ahead with their lives. I think the outcomes would be more peaceful and satisfying than merely "indulging" in just all our desires. Balance still allows one to indulge, but not in an extreme way. Indulgence without balance means having no peace of mind. Once people figure out what their balances are, it wouldnt mean all problems would disappear, it would only mean they would lessen their problems.

Right now, I hear that more Wall Street New Yorkers are responding to the unfortunate attacks of September 11, 2001, by working on ways to figure what their balances in life should be and how to achieve them.

In leadership, where is proper balance to be found? Should we allow leaders to "indulge in all their desires" - all their ego kicks, all the perks and extravagance they want, all the power they want, all maipulations they want - as long as all these are done legally and within the frame work of their board and shareholders? Or should we encourage leaders, as soon as they can, to seek a proper balance in their approach to their jobs? Perhaps they could find their balance points by working through some quick, rapid prototyping thought experiments that would imaginatively get them to go through at least a virtual experience of disillusionment in life, running them through what they would be at the age of 70, or 80, where they hopefuly realize that they cannot control lots of things in life, including their own health, their own energy level, their own speed of thinking, and so on. Then perhaps you could get them to meditate on the inevitable, eventual deaths of some of their kith and kin, their loved ones and very close friends. Perhaps even thoughtful, empathetic imagination on how some of the people they fired, along with their families, likely never got back again in life to where they had been because of some possibly wrong decisions the leaders may have made. They could be asked to imagine what their own mothers and fathers might tell them about what they were doing wrong if they were still living to see and contemplate the decisions of this child who became a leader. They could, of course, also be asked to imagine what the best people in their lives would say about what they are doing right as leaders, so that this could serve as part of their inner compass - a check on their "value system," and so on.

This sort of rapid prototyping for imaginative learning might result in leaders knowing where their extremes are, and where their balance is. They could then emerge as more balanced people, and probably come out as better leaders as well. Perhaps all leaders should even run through this kind of excercise every five years, so that they will be more likely to retain their sense of balance about what's good for the country, what's good for their business, and what's good for their people. Where does one draw the line in balancing Wall Street's quarter by quarter thinking, with the needs of customers you want for the long term, and with the legitimate interests of those employees whose lives you as leaders are responsible for? We have much to think about. Beowulf's mistakes that you wrote about caution us all to think through these things more carefully than we are perhaps accustomed to doing.

Am I right, or are these the ramblings of a sleep deprived man?

Thanks!

Venky.

venkyramana@venkyramana.com

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