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Vol. 5, No. 6
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

What Balance Means to Leaders

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2007 William A. Cohen, PhD

More and more, leaders are beginning to think about, appreciate, and be concerned with, the concept of balance in their lives. I know this because I am increasingly asked about balance and how important it is for a successful career. Frankly, when I was first asked, I didn’t understand what the person questioning me was talking about. However, as soon as this person explained herself further, I understood perfectly.

I have read books where the authors proclaimed: wealth, family, success – you can have it all! Other books by an equally prominent author said, “Let’s face it. If you want success, you need to make sacrifices. If you want to be really successful, forget about family life and personal interests.”

The same is true of the organizations we work in. Some make no bones about it. They expect their membership to be available “24/7” and as far as they are concerned, family life is “okay as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work.”

Other companies have quite a different view. Back in the late 1980’s I was the guest of Mary Kay Ash and her company, Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas, Texas. Remember, this is the woman that raised a family as a single mother and built a billion dollar corporation starting with a $5000 investment. I was in the audience at one of her annual “seminars” at which thousands of saleswomen attended and a guest in her home where I was able to talk with her one on one. As I recall, Mary Kay’s view of balance was in three priorities: spirituality, family, and company in that order. That’s quite a difference in philosophies between companies viewing other personal interests as “okay as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work.”

Based on the perceptions of my career, the question I was asked was how did I do it and what do I recommend to others. I’ve never really reflected on it before. I feel that I’ve spent time with my family and had an opportunity to pursue private interests which were important to me. Still, I confess one big negative I’ve discovered. Once gone, opportunities to allocate time differently are lost and gone forever. Personally, I wish I had spent more time with my family. Once your children are grown and out of the house, you aren’t able to get together to help them, work or play as you once did. Moreover, you only have one spouse. You want to treat him or her the very best you can and to do things together.

But I’m fortunate. I did do some things right, relatively speaking. For example, I wasn’t as unfortunate as a couple I met several years ago who were some years older than me. They were a lovely couple, but had no children. The wife was a poet and she wrote a beautiful book of poetry and sent me a copy. Although some of the poems were upbeat, one was pretty melancholy. It had to do with the furniture in her house. In it she called the furniture “her children.” It was then that I understood that the couple had postponed having children repeatedly because both were making good salaries and focusing on their careers. They spent the money they would have spent on children on the material good things. When they finally decided that they had achieved an acceptable standard of living such they they decided that they could “afford” children, it was too late.

Nor was I as unfortunate as world famous author, Isaac Asimov. This author wrote more than 500 books, including not one, but three or four autobiographies at different stages of his life, not to mention  numerous short stories. He dearly loved his children, a boy and a girl, and the latter was clearly “the apple of his eye.” As a grown young woman, he once asked her: “What kind of father was I?” He expected her to answer, “a loving father,” or perhaps “a doting father,” or maybe “a father who spoiled me.” However her answer surprised and dismayed him. It was, “You were a busy father.”

There is a song that became very popular that explains exactly what happens. The song is called “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” The best description I found of the song I found in Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia at’s_in_the_Cradle.

“The song is told in first person, and relates the story of a father who is too busy to spend time with his son. Though the son repeatedly asks him to join in childhood activities, the father always responds with little more than vague promises of future quality time. Meanwhile, the son grows up loving and admiring his father but decides to be ‘like him’ in that he will get on with his own life. This is seen in the 3rd verse where the father asks the son to sit for awhile but the son asks for the car keys instead. The son is now starting to become like his father in the sense that he won’t have much time to spend with his father. This final realization dawns on the father in the final verse.“Years pass and the lonely, aging father finally desires to spend time with his child. Hoping to make up for lost time, he reaches out to him. The son however has grown up and begun his own life; he warmly responds that he is now too busy with his own work and family to spend time with (or even talk to) his father. Like his father once had, the son promises that someday in the future they will spend time together. The last verse ends with the lines “I’d love to dad if I could find the time/You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu/But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad … And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me/He’d grown up just like me/My boy was just like me …”. This indicates that, as the father sadly realizes, the son has taken after the father in that he has become too occupied with his own family to spend time with his father, who now has the time for him.”

The problem is, we can get so involved in our work, especially if we are successful, that we tend to focus on it to the exclusion of almost everything else. We don’t even know this is happening. Those in the military are especially vulnerable, because we are taught that we must self-sacrifice for the good of others. I not only grew up in a military family, but have been a military man most of my life. It’s not that working hard or doing our absolute best in all situations isn’t good, or that carrying this attitude over to civilian work isn’t desirable. The problem is in doing this twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even when such effort is no longer necessary. We get to thinking that going full out in our work is the normal way and we almost completely ignore our personal lives. Even world class athletes can fall into this trap, and many trainers are now recommending that after building up to a top competition, or retiring from competition, an athlete not try to maintain the same training regimen or level of performance as while active.

So I have a lot of regrets about not spending as much time as I could have with my children and also with my wife. And as I said, these things are not recoverable. My wife raised our kids and did so with minimum help from me and she did a great job and earned a doctorate and became a psychologist, all at the same time. I treasure every involvement with my boys, and I seem to remember every minute with them. But sometimes I wonder whether that is because the times with them were so few. When I finally woke up six years ago, our kids were grown up, out of the house, and into their own careers, and I realized that I could have destroyed a marriage that had lasted more than thirty years by maintaining that my work came before everything else.

But there is an interesting thing that I learned that I’d l like to pass on. Six years ago I changed completely. I rearranged my life and the speaking, writing, teaching, researching, management, and other work demands on me to devote significant time to outside activities and to my family. In fact, I put them first. What has been the result? The surprising result is that I’m getting more done now than ever before.

How can this be? Here’s what I think. First, we all need a rest to recharge. Part of the secret to my productivity is a lesson I learned from my teacher and mentor, world famous management philosopher and consultant, Peter F. Drucker. Peter maintained that every manager needed to have at least two completely separate careers. Peter was a good example. He not only was a professor of management, but was also a professor of Japanese art and he wrote a book on this subject. I had several work careers, including teaching, writing, and the Air Force. What I found was that activity in one of these careers rested me for another. Now you make think that adding yet other non-work activities take away from the work activities, but somehow this doesn’t happen. Instead what I have found is that I have added what amounts to additional “rest” activities.

The second thing I’ve learned is the importance of focus. Focus on what needs to be done, finish, and move on. Cyril Northcote Parkinson  was a British naval historian and the author of sixty books. His most famous book was his best seller Parkinson’s Laws, which led him to be also considered as an important scholar in public administration. Parkinson wrote: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion and the thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent.” What this means is that you will frequently find that you can be as productive, or even more productive — and have more time, by the simple act of focusing, since if you don’t focus, the work will expand to fill the time available and a lot of time will be unproductive and wasted.

Finally, from the Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in the Bible came the song by Pete Seeger called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which became a best seller in the 1960’s. According to the Bible and the verses of the song:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

That’s balance. There is a time for everything in your life, and not only your work. If you maintain balance and take the time for these things, you will be able to “have it all.”


William A. Cohen, PhD, Major General, USAFR, Ret.




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1. In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it, they must have a success in it, and they must not do too much of it. – John Ruskin

2. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – James Howell (1659)


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