January 18, 2017 reinierh

Why workaholics won’t change the world

I can’t deny that workaholics have serious impact, but should we emulate them?

I admire entrepreneurs, I think they will be the ones to make the necessary radical changes to the world viable – economical, culturally, environmentally. But it’s hard work, how to bring about change without losing balance in your own life? Does sacrificing your personal life like so many leaders (think Elon Musk, Steve Jobs) really change the world for the better? 

I’m a workaholic.

I constantly battle the belief that only by working disproportionately hard that I can reach my goals. In my personal life, I know the truth to be different, life must be balanced or you get unhealthy. But what about building a business, what culture should your employees emulate? And on a societal level, what is the net effect of businesses with a culture of overworking vs. cultures emphasizing balance?

It’s common thinking that you need to sacrifice everything to reach greatness – in athletics, academics, and even politics. But I think this is dangerous thinking in business. As a nurse helping people on their deathbeds observed, no one ever wishes they had worked more. So why build your business on the last ounce of effort of all those around you, and yourself?

We must think bigger than our ego to have a successful business.

A selfish business is a zero sum game, we take away from others to succeed ourselves. We sacrifice one part of our life for another. Steve Jobs left an irreplaceable hole, in both personal and corporate life. Elon Musk has great intentions, but what will be the net impact of his contribution? It’s easy to focus on the isolated contribution of a person or business in one area – a metric like revenue or units sold, but what about the net impact of these workaholics on their families, communities, generations to come, and the future generations of your business? Sadly, much of current business is about exploiting imbalance – in people and the environment.

A culture of balance, a style of leadership that embraces a wider perspective – these are the examples we should look up to.

My family owned a business for 3 generations, with 800 employees at it’s height. Recently I was digging around interviews from the 1940’s with the directors – it surprised me to see that their aspirations were never about growth for the sake of growth. Their purpose was creating meaningful work for their immediate surroundings, and they built their company on these principles. Taking this much further, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard has embedded sustainable business principles in every employee, creating a web of healthy relationships among employees, suppliers, customers. He preaches flex working time so staff can surf when the swell is good, on-site daycare facilities at work to keep families together, and was one of the first to introduce maternity leave. The benefit is that employees blur the lines between work and life, in a virtuous cycle that sustains itself.

This builds a greater cumulative impact than a business that goes up like fireworks and disappears just as fast, leaving the embers to fall to the earth.

So next time you want to pull an all-nighter, don’t. Stop being selfish, give that work to someone else. Coach others to achieve the level of perfection you expect. Don’t be surprised if when you give them a part of the pie they pour their soul into it. The next employee that is glued to their screens, tell them to grab some air. Hard work has it’s place, you won’t get anywhere without it. But the kind of overstretching which starts to do damage to other parts of daily life, health, the environment – is not a recipe for a sustainable business. Build a connected culture where 1 + 1 = 3. Build a business to last generations. Lead through encouraging synergy, not exploitation. Don’t emulate egocentric workaholics, coach and mentor others to success. These kinds of leaders and businesses will bring the world back into balance.

‘Working hard is a fool’s anthem, getting others to work for you is the motto for every successful man.’

Michael Bassey Johnson

Ps. Inspiration for this blog came from a working lunch with Viki Pavlic, a perfectionist disciplined enough to still approach his work in a balanced way.

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