The Life-Work Balance of Servant Leaders

I was recently asked about how I balance the demands of my CEO work life at Datron with my personal life. It’s a very interesting question, in very interesting times. I live in North San Diego County in California, where the weather is great, the coast is beautiful, the mountains are within driving distance, and Disneyland is just up the interstate. In this environment, I really shouldn’t have any challenges in balancing my work life with my personal life. I wish that was true, but it’s time to confess. I’m writing this article on Sunday afternoon from my home office. I really enjoy my life — my work and family — so why am I writing on a Sunday afternoon? Well, I didn’t plan my week well enough to get this article written before the weekend.

I’m not perfect, and neither are you.

Now that confession time is over, let’s get down to the topic for today. To begin, I would challenge you to reorder the words from work-life balance to life-work balance as I’ve done in the title above. At our company, our number one value is “Our Families Come First.” There is no one who is so important to a company that they can’t take time off to be with or help their family. Make a decision to put your family first before your work. It’s the most important life decision you will make as a leader.

In the late 1990s, I was working on a program for the government of Indonesia, traveling from San Diego to Jakarta on a regular basis. My job was to work with the government to help them finance a $20 million purchase of our radio equipment.

In 2000, my daughter, Jennifer, was graduating from high school. Our customer in Indonesia had requested that I travel to Indonesia in early June for some meetings regarding the program. I knew it would be a tight fit, but left on the trip two weeks before the graduation date. The meetings were going along well and then hit a snag due to some unscheduled conflicts with the customer. They asked me to extend my trip for a couple weeks to conclude our business.

If I did, I would miss Jennifer’s graduation. I decided to leave Jakarta the day before the graduation and then return to Jakarta the day after the graduation. I arrived home the night before graduation day, attended the graduation and reception afterward, and returned to Jakarta the next day.

It was a huge mistake on my part. I was not putting Jennifer first in my life; I was working her and the rest of our family into my business life. I missed the opportunity to live life to the fullest with my family during one of the most important times for my daughter. What I should have done was be home for the entire month of June to enjoy the whole experience with Jennifer and the family. I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about this mistake and wished I could go back and undo it.

Today, I believe our day-to-day life is so integrated there is no more work-life balance, just life-work integration. Our lives have become so busy with all kinds of activities that the expectations of company leaders need to change in this area. We need to put our employees’ lives first and their work life second.

Okay, Art, how do you do that?” you ask.

I’ve already shared our company’s number one value. The last value we have is, “We don’t compromise our values.” We won’t put our employees in a position where they have to pick their work responsibilities over their family responsibilities. We don’t do it.

The best way for servant leaders to show how serious they are about this value is to live it themselves. If we don’t put our families first, we can’t expect others to. Our behavior is what takes this value off the wall and into practice in our organization.

I regret spending a large percentage of my work life putting my career above my family. I can never get that time back; I can only make sure it will not happen again. Don’t make the same mistake I made — put your personal life first, before your work life. Those who you love most and who love you the most will have a better life. You will, too.

 

Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute (SLI), an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice, through hands-on training, coaching, events, publications and other programs.

He is also CEO and cultural architect of Datron World Communications Inc., an organization he transformed from a $10 million company to a $200 million company in just six years by putting into practice the behaviors of servant leadership. His latest book is The Servant Leadership Journal: An 18 Week Journey To Transform You and Your Organization.


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