You’re back in the boardroom again with your fellow senior executives. The CEO has asked each of you for a number—the EBIT uplift from those cost savings you’ve all been charged with finding. He’s going around the table. Fine—you’ve still time to flip through the report your EA printed out. You open your leather folder and quietly sift through the papers. It’s not there. You reach down into your bag, but your hand feels only the solid plastic triangle of your lunch. You peer down. No report. Shit.
You need those big numbers, the ones that will impress. You can’t believe you can’t bring them to mind–you used to be so good at that. You’d planned to refresh your memory by reading at least the executive summary during the early part of today’s agenda. Now, head cocked in feigned interest of the Chief Customer Officer’s plans, you surreptitiously reach for your phone. Your transformation director’s sitting just outside the boardroom waiting to catch you after this meeting. She’s hoping you’ll get her the green light today. You text: ‘Need EBIT figs from transformation’. As your colleague wraps up, you wait to see who the chairman will call on next. Thank goodness, it’s someone else.
You’ve got some breathing room. But how did you get here, in this sorry state? You’ve spent so much of your last years in the trenches of minutiae. It’s where you feel useful and where you reckon you can make a meaningful contribution. You feel you’re doing your duty by your subordinates—servant leadership at its best. So long as you maintain your tempo at prestissimo, you’re bound to create enough value from your conscientious exertions. Your team see how busy you are, which you think helps when you need to call on them to pull an all-nighter. Truthfully, they wish you’d get out the way and let them do what they’re paid to do.
You’re not quite sure at what point this frenetic pace became an end in itself. For the longest time you haven’t stopped to think about purpose—whether of the business, your team or yourself. As each day goes by, you subconsciously avoid that ‘why?’ question, afraid perhaps of what the answer might reveal.
Another day goes by and your vision gets closer and closer—not because you are achieving it, but because it’s shrinking. The boardroom excited you once. But now you have to will yourself through the endless round of meetings as the issues get tabled and nothing substantive seems to get done. You wish you had more time to think, rather than bolting a sandwich on the run, washed down by an espresso. As you wait anxiously for the text, the framed values statement, elegantly designed, catches your eye. You remember working on its engaging language, but it no longer carries much charge—the words feel as flat as you do.
“Your vision gets closer and closer—not because
you are achieving it, but because it’s shrinking.”
A statement about ‘courage’ stares at you from the wall. What on earth was that about? But before you can dig deeper your phone buzzes with the answer you’ve been waiting for. A second one a moment afterwards: ‘It’s in the report!’ You feel her fury, especially as she’d double-checked you’d read it before the meeting. Damn, you reflect, you always used to be on top of your brief and you’d never lie about having read something without actually having done so. But at least now you can safely lay aside larger thoughts about purpose and just focus on what’s in front of your face.
The boss nods in your direction. You clear your throat and remind him of the transformation project. You rattle off the big number saying, ‘I really think this is worth chasing.’ A colleague, your friend, who notices your agitated state asks you a Dorothy Dixer about who’s on the steering committee. You use the chance to draw a breath and answer confidently. You also single out your transformation director: ‘She’s one to watch.’ You’ll tell her afterwards you sang her praises and hope it heals the rift between you. The CEO nods sagely as he puts the cap on his Mont Blanc. ‘Okay, that’s a wrap,’ he says breezily. ‘Let’s review the full business case in two weeks.’
You’ve made it through another meeting. Perhaps your bonus is safe. But you’ve been getting to work earlier and earlier and leaving later and later. Your marriage is heading south and your kids don’t know who you are, nor you who they are. Life streams past you in a constant blur—never a moment to be still. If you’re not in a meeting, you’re writing reports, fighting fires, dealing with the regulators, regretting bullying a hapless vendor, pleading with a pissed-off customer. You feel accountable for everything contained in the tornado whirlygigging around you, without the authority to invest in the resources you need to get the work done. In fact, you have no idea what resources are required to get the work done because you never have the time to plan. It’s all busyness. All you know is that you haven’t got enough…of whatever it is.
You’re terrified you’re going to get found out and have long ago frozen out any type of learning, for fear of making a mistake. Just do what you know and, for goodness sake, don’t try anything new. It’s far too risky. And be sure to suppress any of the bold new ideas your team brings along. Not tyrannically, to be sure, but with a faux smile that belies what you’re feeling inside.
Now, let’s step back a moment and have a look at your life inside the box. On the left-hand vertical are the 24 hours it takes the earth to spin on its axis. On the horizontal, the timeline for a 45-year-old. Take 8 hours off for sleep, 8 hours for work and four hours for commuting and chores and you’re left with 4 hours a day to make something of your life. Weekends don’t count, as you’re the sort who works more than 8 hours and sleeps less than eight—so let’s say, on average, that’s a reasonable representation. But I wouldn’t get hung up on the absolute numbers—just become aware of how little ‘you time’ is left over.
It’s sobering to think of all of this busyness at work and ask if it’s worth it. That’s fully a third of your life (at least) you’re throwing down the drain, ignoring Thoreau’s maxim that ‘the price of anything is the amount of life you’re willing to pay for it’. What stops you from changing the music?
The hero gets a call to do something bigger than they are—to make a contribution worthy of the ridiculously small chance that they were ever born at all. The hallmark of the hero is to listen to that call. It means crossing a threshold and going into the dark part of the forest—that part which hasn’t yet been discovered. It means peeling away the layers of self-doubt, of cynicism and fear. It means speaking truth to yourself and to power. We all love those words on the piece of paper that call on that part of ourselves that is more noble, but regularly shrink from the need to act nobly. We die to our better selves through a hundred compromises a day. We don’t want to offend, we want to keep the peace, we seek an advantage whilst waiting in the shadow. We’re ashamed to confess our ignorance and fear the consequence of making a wrong decision. We confuse familiarity with mastery—anyone can take the controls when in mid-flight in calm weather, but can we land on a frozen river when the engine’s blown out? What does that say about constancy of purpose, over a lifetime?
No, work and life are not to be balanced. Those eight hours (at least) of work aren’t there just to finance the life you squeeze in around them. What a ridiculous proposition that is—as if you were told you had to give a third of your existence away doing this thing called work and only live what little there is of your precious lifetime with the balance? No again. Work and life must be integrated. We must find the courage to listen to what life calls on us to do. Of what use is the house, the car, the fancy clothes, restaurants and holidays if you reach your time to hop the twig and there’s no ‘you’ to be found?
But…can you see yourself authoring your future rather than being led along in the semi-comatose drift of a safe job? For sure, not everyone was made to start their own business and not every heroic deed is made by the entrepreneurs. But is your fear of the boss, or need to please him or her, enough reason to cauterise your life? How do you know how it’s going to turn out? Is the story you’re telling yourself going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy? If free speech is the single biggest freedom won by our culture, what are you suppressing and being suppressed by in your workplace?
Don’t kid yourself. You’re not here to make more money now and in the future, and suffer the disease of feeling that you never have enough. You’re here to make a difference. To do something meaningful. To have people say that had you not made your choices the way you did, the world would be a poorer place for it. Let that be the measure of your wealth. Be humble enough to learn new ways of seeing and brave enough to trust yourself in bringing it to life. Be the hero of your own story. Know who you are and why you’re here—what’s worth living for and what must die, however painfully, to make way for what is good, and true, and beautiful.
So what are you going to do now before that next big meeting? Can you make the case for change and rally your team to the cause? Will they believe it this time? Would you believe yourself? There’s really only one way to find out.
Where have all the heroes gone? They’ve gone to call on you to join their number.
Having the courage to change is really the central theme of my book More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]
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