How Robert Chen, WG’19, is applying Wharton’s Total Leadership Course to become a better leader in all areas of his life.

When we think about leadership, it’s usually in a professional context. We focus on how we lead our organizations, departments, and teams but rarely put any thought into how we lead other areas of our life. How are we doing in our family life, our community, our own health and well-being? Are we leading these areas or are we just going with the flow hoping things will turn out OK? Why don’t we lead these other areas of our life?

These were the questions I asked myself during Prof. Stew Friedman’s Total Leadership course. What attracted me to take this course was his concept that work-life balance doesn’t work because it implies having to make trade-offs. Instead of managing life as slices of a pie that gets smaller or bigger at the expense of each other, his approach considers different areas of your life as independent circles that can potentially overlap with each other.

This new construct helped me unlock the creativity to better optimize my life and it has transformed the way I live and work. Here are five insights I took away from the course:

1. Lead your life: Don’t use one area of your life to make excuses for another area.

Before this program, I often felt guilty about not getting home early enough to spend time with my kids. I used work as my excuse, rationalizing that now was the time to focus on my career and once I’ve “made it,” I can carve out more time for family. Along the same vein, I used my two young sons as the excuse for not exercising. I would tell myself, “How can I afford to work out if I don’t even have enough time to spend with my kids?” Then I would use the time I needed for work, school, family, and exercise to justify why I slept on average only five hours each night.

I found myself often saying how much I wanted to do these things but explaining how I couldn’t because of these many legitimate excuses. Looking back, that was a weak way of living. This experience has taught me to either do what I say is important to do or stop saying it’s important to me. Either way is fine but continuing to make excuses is not.

As part of this course, we all conducted personal experiments. For my experiments, I committed to getting 7+ hours of sleep, getting home before 7 p.m. during most of the work week, and exercising daily, which included running twice a week. I was initially skeptical since I’ve had so many false starts trying to implement similar positive habits but I’m excited to share that, so far, I’ve not only sustained these habits, but I just completed my first half-marathon after never running a race in the past.

What made the difference this time was clarifying the vision I wanted for my life and taking control to bring that vision to life. Essentially, leading myself to where I wanted to go.

2. Sleep really matters.

I was lucky to choose to sleep 7+ hours as one of my experiments because there was no other habit change that yielded faster and more drastic results. I used to subscribe to the “you can sleep when you retire” and “I’m successful because I work harder and longer than everyone else” mantra. I’m beginning to see the fault in this thinking and realizing that I may have spun my wheels more often than I am aware of or care to admit.

After consistently getting 7+ hours of sleep, I noticed my mood becoming more positive and relaxed. What surprised me the most was that I immediately stopped craving coffee (I was drinking about 2-3 cups a day for the last few years).

I also found sleeping sufficiently is a linchpin habit. The days when I was well-rested, I almost always completed every other habit change along with my work and school goal for that day. It allowed me to exercise more self-control and discipline.

3. Create constraints to force creativity.

Forcing myself to get home early, sleep enough hours, and exercise daily meant taking time away from other areas of my life, especially work. Initially, I was worried I wouldn’t get my work done leading to adverse consequences. What I found instead was the most important work was still getting done and since my deadlines were tighter, I became more effective with my time. Having less time for work began to prevent me from over-engineering my work and school projects.

It also helped me to be more creative about my time. Instead of agreeing to drinks or dinner with a client, I would offer to meet for breakfast or lunch, so I can keep my commitment to get home early. I started running and working out with other people as a great way to catch up with them. Interestingly, by creating constraints and forcing myself to keep these new habits, the quality of my life has increased at home and at work.

4. Be the building block for other people’s goals.

One of the key exercises in the Total Leadership process was to set up conversations with the most important stakeholders in the different areas of your life. The goal is to ask your stakeholders about their expectations for you and how you’re doing in meeting those expectations.

Holding these conversations, I realized that I often see people around me as building blocks to my success and drive our interactions in the direction of my agenda and accomplishing my goals. Hearing people’s expectations of me have made me realize that other people have their own needs and aspirations and to create long-term, positive relationships with them, I need to be the building block for their goals and success.

If you want people to see you as a leader, they first have to recognize that their life will be better because they follow you. There is no better way to do that than to become a critical part in their quest for success and meaning.

5. Grow the relationships you take for granted.

Every year I have clear goals to improve and to grow my career. It seems like the natural thing to do. What’s interesting is when I reflect on my closest relationships, I don’t have the same aspirational tendency. I don’t think about growing these relationships and at best, the relationship stays where it is. The only time I pay attention is when the relationship gets strained and I spend just enough energy to get it back to the original level.

Applying the same growth mentality from my career to my personal relationships, I asked my wife, family, and others close to me what we needed to do to take our relationship to the next level. Just by having these conversations, my key relationships are beginning to thrive and grow and it’s having a positive impact on other areas of my life. When you ask people about their needs and truly listen, they often become open to sincerely understanding your needs.

I came to Wharton to pick up the skills needed to succeed in business and am graduating with skills to help me succeed in life.

— Robert Chen

Posted: January 2, 2019

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