If leading organizations and people was easy, then everyone could do it. I’ve had a number of conversations lately with clients and colleagues who are complaining about how hard they have to work. More often than not, the average age of these people is under 45. I try my best to be understanding and empathetic while also trying to bring some realism into the discussion. I am starting to feel that far too many people in positions of authority, think they can have it all and they can’t. Life and leadership requires sacrifice and compromise. What you want is often less important than what’s needed at any given point in time. Sometimes you have to do the heavy lifting and suck it up.
I believe there is a big difference between a lifestyle business and a growth oriented more professional business. As with all things you need to be true to yourself and your core personal priorities. Of course you need to do the personal reflection necessary to get clarity on your “why” and what truly drives you. Too many people who start businesses do what they think they should be doing rather than contemplating what they actually should be doing given who they are and what they value. Delusions of grandeur and aspirations of professional significance are your enemy not your friend in a lifestyle business. As a colleague so aptly puts it. “It’s important in life to know what you really want, but even more important to know the price your willing to pay to get it.”
In a lifestyle business you design your business around your life. I know many people who have successfully done this. The tradeoff is that the income you can potentially earn hits a ceiling much more quickly, the business can only handle a small number of employees (if any at all) so employee leverage is limited, and you sometimes get forced into doing things you’d rather not do because of operational capacity constraints. This is definitely the better path for someone who wants to maximize work-life balance and live for today. Your work will typically come in spurts and you will need to be able to flex up and flex down your personal efforts as needed. Accept this reality and move on. You just need to be realistic about the potential upside and keep your personal finances under control in a commensurate fashion. Debt is not your friend nor is overreaching in other ways. Keep it simple.
In a more traditional business, growth in many different categories is the expectation. You are constantly challenging the status quo and stretching your capabilities. Success will come with its rewards but also with its challenges. Work-life balance is not a realistic expectation and quality will need to trump the quantity of your personal life expectations. You are building for the future rather than just living for the moment (although the journey should still be enjoyable). People issues will multiply and client demands will become more complex. Your ability to understand basic business finance is essential because your math decisions can have significant investment consequences. You can potentially build a great organization with an enduring legacy but it will come at some personal cost. The needs of the business will be an omnipresent reality. You may limit your role with time but never eliminate it unless you sell the business or hand it off to a successor.
In either category, you will probably need to work harder than you want to and differently depending upon which route you take. Being a boss of yourself or others is much more demanding than being an employee. The buck will almost always stop with you. Even though you may hire people to share the load, the tough decisions and actions almost always end up on your desk. You may be able to delay but never fully ignore reality. Your personal priorities especially in a growth business will sometimes need to take a backseat to other more pressing organizational issues. I shudder when I read these magazine article that provide examples of seemingly uber-human leaders who appear to have it all. Trust me they don’t. You also often don’t fully get the details on the sacrifice and hard work it took to get them to that point. It is assumed but rarely discussed. Sure there are exceptions in life, but they are rare and most of us hover around average when it comes to accessing our ongoing potential. They key is to look at the results you are getting and then be honest with yourself about the costs/requirements of any significant changes.
I’ll often give my beleaguered clients a hug and provide some positive encouragement at the end of our conversations. Sometimes you just need to help get them centered. However, I sincerely hope they also get the message that this is what they signed up for. There rarely are any useful leadership shortcuts. Few people can outsmart conventional wisdom. Business fundamentals rarely change. Your actions lead to consequences that you can live with or not. Leadership IS hard work and the bar is not only constantly being raised, the target is also often shifting due to circumstances beyond your control. Whining and self-pity are unattractive traits in children let alone adults who embrace leadership roles and all the ensuing responsibilities. In a very simple sense, leadership is about doing what’s required when it is needed regardless of whether you like it or not.