An online cure for an unsustainable model of leadership

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Jack Layton’s death has me thinking back over many years of NDP activism, going back to the very first campaign I ever worked on: Dan Heap’s 1984 election campaign, when one of the most tireless presences in the committee room was that of Dan’s young constituency assistant, Olivia Chow. And it especially has me thinking about all the friends and colleagues I have lost to campaigns, one way or another, over the years.

The colleague who had a heart attack midway through an election. Another who ended up on long-term stress leave, dependent on psychopharmaceuticals in order to function. The two friends who severed their close relationship over a dispute about their respective candidates. The many friends who developed long-term drug and alcohol habits in order to make it through a brutal campaign. The many others who can doubtless trace their cancers to cigarette addictions picked up in back rooms that for many years were literally smoke-filled.

I have no idea when Jack knew how serious his health situation was, but after years of working on election campaigns I’d be unsurprised if he set aside his health concerns in order to complete a campaign. That’s the culture of politics, which exacts literally unsustainable sacrifices from its leaders.

Indeed, that’s the culture of leadership for much of our society today. Business leaders succeed by spending most of their waking hours at work, finding that next customer, building that next great product. Community leaders succeed by pouring their life force into the causes and organizations they believe in; if you still have some energy left at the end of the day, then you must not care enough about the cause. Political leaders succeed by putting their personal lives, and often their personal health, a distant second to serving a political agenda.

Very few of us are willing to live the lives of extreme imbalance that seem to be expected of those who head our governments, our companies, our leading community organizations. On the contrary: most people organize their lives around their families, around paying the bills, maybe around their favourite hobbies. Work is what you do to make the rest of it possible. Work isn’t at the centre.

One of the great fortunes of finding work you are passionate about — passionate the way most political professionals I know are deeply, sincerely passionate — is that you’re not putting your life on hold from 9 to 5. You get to be excited about what you are doing all day (well, maybe not quite all day), every day (well, maybe not quite every day). And if the price of having work you care about is that it doesn’t end at 5, well, it’s worth working until 6 or 7 to feel like what you’re doing really matters.

The problem comes at 8, or maybe 9…when you’re 12 hours into your day, and you’re now spending more time on work than you are on every thing else put together. That’s the moment when you are well and truly separated from the great mass of folks whose lives are not about their jobs; whose lives are about their families, their friends, their home, their crafting or their local sports team.

Of course, different people make different choices about how to shape their lives, and there’s nothing wrong with some people spending 16 hours a day at work because that’s how they want to live. But the fact that our society’s key institutions are for the most part led by one set of people — those who put in the 12+ days — should give us pause.

How can our CEOs and heads of state make decisions for all of us, when their own lives diverge so sharply from the lives they will shape? What kind of world are we building if we ask those who lead us to live lives that are so completely different from (most) of our own? How can we create a world in which leadership need not be a fatal condition?

The answer, I think, lies in the increasing attention paid to leadership models that emphasize sustainability over sacrifice. Sustainable leadership was one of the key themes of the Art of Leadership workshop Rob and I did a few years ago. You’re no good to the movement (the party, the company, the family) if you’re burned out. Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers.

The Internet can be the worst enemy of that kind of sustainable leadership, if you take the 24/7 stream of tweets as a call to spend your own 24/7 trying (futilely) to catch up. That’s why it’s so important to limit your social media consumption to whatever you are able to meaningfully filter; to witness only the volume of other people’s activity you can tolerate before succumbing to the urge to do more yourself.

But the Internet can also remind us of the value of sustainability, of replenishing our own reserves. Give that inspiration at least one column of tweets or folder full of aggregated news, by following people and sites that inspire you not to do more, but to do less.

And the Internet can help us celebrate true leadership in all its forms. That is certainly what is happening in Canada today.

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