As I’m preparing this article for The Choice, it’s the middle of the clay court part of the tennis season – a sport I love -, which will culminate in the French Open that Rafael Nadal has won a record 13 times, and I find a very interesting piece about tennis and setting ourselves goals to succeed in life. Sophie Guignard finishes her article with this: “Sometimes, joy is the right choice. Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic must surely know something about that.” I am mentioning this because it is very much connected with what I have written in this contribution.
Should life feel like playing a five-setter on clay against Rafael Nadal?
When I was starting my professional career, in the 80’s, it was very popular to plan to work very hard and hopefully earn a lot of money so you could achieve financial independence when you become 40 or 50 years old. The idea was to suffer at the beginning to enjoy the second half of your life. I have known many people and many executives developing complicated lives and leadership styles to achieve this plan for themselves.
At the beginning of my career, I personally liked the idea of trying to achieve some type of financial independence early in life. I saw it as a source of freedom. But what I didn’t really like was the hurting part. I never accepted the idea of suffering as a student, or as a young consultant, or as a promising executive in the banking industry. Achieving financial independence, I thought, was attractive, but never at the cost of leading your life in a sad and painful way. I thought life had to be enjoyed everyday. Obviously, all these ideas were confusing to me.
You don’t have to work yourself to death to have a successful professional career, quite the contrary.
My enlightenment arrived in 2008, when professor Stew D. Friedman from The Wharton School, my alma mater, published the book Total Leadership. He has dedicated his academic life to creating a model to help people become better leaders and have richer lives.
I felt astonished. Suddenly, I discovered that to obtain good results as a leader at work it is important to have a rich life in all areas, both professional and personal. So you don’t have to work yourself to death to have a successful professional career, quite the contrary: it is important to find harmony in life.
The model, which Stew Friedman created while working for the Ford Motor Company, has a very well structured framework that facilitates everybody to learn it. One of the key concepts is the 4-Way Wins, which consists of small experiments to have a positive impact in the four domains of life: work, home/family, community and yourself.
This sounded like music to my ears. It was precisely what I had tried to achieve during my professional life, but without the proper methodology. I immediately got in touch with professor Friedman, and I have been collaborating intensively with him ever since.
My perception is that many companies have advanced in this direction since 2008. Especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Total Leadership has even been an excellent just-in-time ‘organisational vaccine’ at Aegon. In any case, I still meet many companies and executives who want a “tougher”, more “painful” leadership style.
Work and personal life are not a zero sum game, there are synergies if you learn how to create harmony.
What makes all this especially interesting is its connection with longevity. If we live longer, for most people the equation for financial independence or for retiring early is going to be almost impossible to solve.
But the interesting idea about Total Leadership is that it opens up a new way of looking at work. Leadership at work is not only about work, but also about life. Work and personal life are not a zero sum game, there are synergies if you learn how to create harmony.
Enjoying it to make it last
If you learn to work like this, why should you ever stop working in your life? Probably, you will adapt to the different stages of life. But if you have learnt to lead your life in this way, first, maybe you will never retire and second, and perhaps even more importantly, you will be able to work comfortably, without feeling that it is about suffering during some years, because later on you will have time to enjoy yourself. It seems that successful lives are not built in that way.
To finish, I want to reconnect with the article by Sophie Guignard on tennis. A few weeks ago I saw Carlitos Alcaraz, the Spanish rising star, defeat Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career. He played a marvellous and enjoyable match. In the interview afterwards, he mentioned that he plays tennis to enjoy himself and thinks that he is successful because he enjoys playing tennis, connecting with the spectators.
What’s more, he advised young tennis players to look for the right environment, in which they are encouraged to enjoy themselves while playing tennis. He considers this a crucial success factor. Precisely Sophie’s point and also, in some way, mine.