The Real Source of Life Balance

Some people work in organizations that are quite macho. The focus is on task, the tempo is intense, and the people are replaceable parts. If someone spends decades in such a context it tends to shape how they think, act, and speak. Conversations are entirely cognitive. I spent the last few days with a group of such people. From the first moment I  worked hard to lead them in such a way that would make it safe and desirable to do something unconventional; that is, to speak from their hearts as well as their heads.

I was teaching and began the morning with the usual debrief. I took their observations from the previous day, listened carefully to each input. Then I responded by associating the input with my own experiences and sharing from my heart as well as my head. As their comments emerged I also connected them one to another.

This process at first seems normal, but it turns into something that is not normal. The review is not only a discussion of what they learned, it becomes a process of knowledge creation. We witness the emergence of the collective intelligence which focuses on an unpredictable topic that is of great importance to all.  An illustration may help.

Yesterday, in just such a review, the conversation became increasingly authentic and one of the men spoke up. He said, “Yesterday my daughter flew away. She left home to live across the country. It was a jolt (he began to weep and paused, eventually he went on.). I have been asking, did I do all I could for her? I think that I did not. I keep thinking of the endless times I chose to work and miss important moments in her life. It is breaking my heart.”

The class went silent. I asked if the man was alone. Many heads began to shake. I asked if anyone in the room ever felt what he was feeling. Nearly every hand went up.

Suddenly the conversation changed. It became intense. There were a flood of intimate comments and illustrations shared about the loss of life balance. It became clear that their organizational culture mouths the value of life balance, but actually values and incentivizes life imbalance. Many deeply insightful observations illustrated this. The overwhelming power of the cultural incentives was perhaps clearer than ever before. There was a sense of hopelessness.

Then there was another shift. The focus went to the home. Someone said, “What troubles me, is that when I arrive home I am fully depleted and even though I want a quality relationship with my family, I have nothing for them, in fact I am a negative influence, I pull them down.”

With great yearning someone pleaded, “What can we do about that?” The query was interesting, almost paradoxical. It seemed to imply a great need to know while it also seemed to imply that there was no answer.

All eyes turned to me. Instead of responding to the strong expectation to be the expert, I waited. Then it happened. A gentle woman began to speak.

“You have to let go. You have to choose intention. You need to fill yourself with the energy you do not have. You have to clarify your purpose. It is your family. They are the most important thing. You commit to what you are doing. Before you open the door, you choose who you are going to be. You commit to not respond to the fact the shoes are going to be on the floor and the dishes still in the sink. You focus on what is more important. You walk in and fulfill your highest purpose. You give hugs. You affirm them. You create love.”

This answer was breathtaking. She went on, “At work you make the same commitment. We recently had a crisis. I had a guy give all he had for weeks because it was absolutely necessary. That happens. As soon as it was over, I told him to go home. I needed him to be whole. I told him not to come back until he was whole. I practice that with all my people. We do important work, we have to give a lot, so we need to be whole.”

“When I first started telling them to go home, they did not know how to respond. The culture was telling them it was not what they should do. I insisted. Then I did something more important. I began to model it. I committed, if there is a ballgame, I am going to be there without guilt. So I would leave and tell them why I was leaving. Pretty soon they began to believe it was OK to take care of themselves.”

“It happened because I committed. Now I just am. I make no excuses. I am clear with everyone including my bosses. The interesting thing is now, if I am working too hard, they tell me to go home. I committed and everything started to get better.”

We were silent as we collectively pondered this amazing gift. As we wrapped up I asked if the conversation was valuable to them. They responded with an enthusiastic affirmation. Then I asked why we were able to obtain such a gift. I pointed to the man who told us, with tears, about his daughter and asked if there was a link between his courage and the gift we received. No one needed to answer, they got it, they saw the connection between authenticity, emergence and the acceleration of learning.



  • What does vulnerability and authenticity have to do with the emergence of collective intelligence?
  • How does organizational culture rob us of life balance?
  • What is the real root of life balance?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



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