The topic of leadership often brings to mind a bright side: people making a positive impact with others, often producing extraordinary accomplishments together, and “leading the charge” to get outcomes to happen.  It is also often thought of as having more freedom and authority than other roles – the freedom to choose and make things happen.

But there is a dark side of leadership.  Where you have “responsibility without authority.” Where the demand never stops increasing. Where you wind up with all the problems on your shoulders. Where we can drop into impatience and frustration, pushing and demanding instead of inspiring. Where we sacrifice more and more for the sake of the mission, the community, the plan, or the results. We don’t make it home in time to have dinner with the kids and think this is normal. And sometimes we find ourselves with little freedom, walking fine lines among multiple constraints, restrictions, and demands.

Even when we are successful in leadership there is the continual draw of “more.” The more successful you are as a leader the more external demand shows up, the more invitations you receive to do more. We can also have an internal demand for more accomplishment, more power, more rewards, more, more, more. This is a particularly insidious draw since we live in a culture with an assumption that “more is better.”

So I ask of us these questions: for the sake of what do we lead?  What’s the point of our leadership?  Is it to achieve the “more” that is never enough? And what do we sacrifice to our responsibility to lead?  What sacrifices do we demand of others? And what moods do we fall into in the exercise of leadership? Vitality or burden?

I hold that leadership should be for the sake of a Good Life. A good life for those that experience the consequences of our leadership – our customers, for those we lead, and also for ourselves as leaders.  If leadership is not about producing a good life, then what is it for?  It’s a question that has largely been lost in the mainstream thinking about leadership. And, in fact, the questions of “what is a good life” has itself largely been lost and overwhelmed with the automatic answer of “more.”

Decades ago I still heard conversations about the good life.  But the question of “what is a good life?” seems to have largely disappeared. What is a good life was considered an important question for each of us to contemplate, design, choose, and pursue.  The answer of “more” was considered shallow, a soul-less default, a slide into desire, distraction, and slavery to an empty grind.  The aspects of a good life that were considered common to any person’s life journey included health, love, meaning, good work, community and service, healthy families, self-respect and respect of others, aspiration to be your best, and a profound relationship with the ultimate mystery of life.

Of course, by the “Good Life” I don’t mean the “high life.” Common default assumptions about what is a good life include a life of pleasure and sensuality, power, financial wealth, or all three. An ancient Greek philosopher considered a life of learning the best form of a good life.

We each have to find our own story of the “good life,” but what is most important is to have the question.  What is a good life? Are you living it? And if not, what games are you playing? Or what games are playing you?

I propose the following path of the good life – first to explore and discover what you most deeply care about. Ask yourself, “What do I care about – really.” This is a new question for most of us in our culture. And we must be open that our answers change during life’s journey, so the question is never closed with a final answer.  The question is always there, calling us to look at our choices and our lives. Care is an emotional space where our purpose and vision join with meaning and heart.

The next step is to reflect if your choices in life are taking care of what you care about. Or have you have chosen to sacrifice your cares to some other story about necessities. Are you even aware that you have choice about these stories?

Then we can become designers of our lives. We live in many domains of care, such as family, money, career, body, membership, spirituality, and so on. Our choices in these different domains become our design, the work of art of our life. What does your life as your work of art look like?

In this reflection, we can begin to notice the stories of our lives that we are living. Or notice the stories that are living us. We can notice if we are overwhelmed by the story of doing “more.” Get more done, or do more to get more. And we can also notice that more is not necessarily better.  And that if we are always going for “better,” we may have lost what is “good.” If we live in the story of “better”, particularly if we equate more to better, then we can never have what is good enough. How much is enough? Enough for a good life.

These questions can provoke our “work hard, do more” assumptions have us listen that they are saying “do less.” This can trigger the reaction of “that would be lazy,” or “I’d lose my purpose.” But I am actually suggesting we should not be ruled by the demands or either “more” or “less.” But shift our entire conversation to “am I creating and living a good life, for me, for those I lead, and for those that we serve? And if not, why not? How much is enough for a good life?”

My long experience in helping others to ground their leadership in care and taking care, informed with the skills of coordinating of action, is that individuals and teams elevate their measurable performance. This is because action and results come from the commitment, care, and coordination of people, not from mechanizing them with more sacrifice.

If we are leaders for a good life, not overwhelmed by the mindless demand for more, then we can become designers of a healthy future, and cultivators of meaningful work, contribution, and creating value. We can create a good life for ourselves and others.

What do you care about?

To listen to the audio recording of this conference call about Leadership for a Good Life, CLICK HERE.