Leadership: Is Work/Life Balance Possible?

Father and son debate the alternatives: Should American workers toughen up—or does business need a new paradigm?
May 01, 2005

Sander A. Flaum
Leadership in Crisis FATHER Young people in India and China are not talking about work/life balance. In Thomas L. Friedman's new book, The World Is Flat, as well as in a variety of other business press sources, young people from these countries are portrayed as economically hungry and extremely competitive. They are not thinking about spending more time at home with the kids and to plant gardens. Young Indian and Chinese workers have the training and work ethic to become more than the "outsource" of American-based companies—they will be the primary "in-source" as well.

Meanwhile, young American workers insist on balance, to a point that threatens to catapult American business into a full-blown leadership crisis. This past January, at Renaissance Weekend, I sat in on some panels with American 20- and 30-somethings. I didn't hear a word from our best and brightest about legacy building, maintaining the competitive edge, or fighting to be number one in innovation. Instead, I heard how nice it is to work a 30-hour week and take a hike to clear the mind when a bit of stress comes up.

Jonathon Flaum
In my experience, competitiveness and work/life balance are incompatible. You can't work six hours a day, be home to play with kids for three hours, and drive a company to the top. Winning in business simply takes more commitment than that. I was somewhat encouraged by Linda Tischler's article in the April 2005 Fast Company on "extreme jobs"— tales of young American up-and-comers working more than 90 hours a week at high-pressure industry jobs they love. But these young people make up a very small percentage of the overall workforce.

My own attitude was best summed up by Jack Welch in his new book, Winning: "There's lip service about work-life balance, and then there's reality....Your boss's top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win. In fact, if he is doing his job right, he is making your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw."

A New Paradigm SON My father is making a classic either/or split between the ability to lead a company to greatness and the ability to have a life outside of work. This model sells us short and asks American workers to make unreasonable compromises.

My father's argument is framed by a particular bottom line—global competitiveness. This has been the bottom line for most of this nation's history, and it has worked to keep us on top economically and politically. But there have been other costs. The Boomer generation is the largest and arguably the most economically productive in this nation's history, but it also created weekend dads, latchkey kids, and TV dinners.

This generation was very much a product of Welch's "making your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw." Let's consider this: Welch is asking you to decide which is more compelling: negotiating a billion-dollar merger or reading your child a book at night. The comparison is absurd. These activities are on entirely different scales. Work without adequate time for intimate connection with loved ones and a bit of personal time has long-term degenerating effects that may not show up on a company profit/loss analysis, but do show up in a society with considerably more at stake than economic hegemony.

I believe we can live in a new both/and paradigm rather than the either/or one we've inherited. The question for my generation: How do we do both/and equally well?

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