How to Practice Holistic Leadership
Weave a Full Life by Becoming a More Holistic Leader
Imagine one of your shirt buttons: round, with 4 holes, holding your shirt safe and closed. Picture the thread that weaves between the holes, from one to the next, to the next, and so on, connecting the holes to each other and creating a tight attachment. The button may be pulled and twisted as you fasten and unfasten it, but when the 4 holes are interlaced well, the button holds securely to the fabric.
We’ve used this metaphor of a button with our participants as a memorable symbol of what truly holistic leadership looks like ever since the start of our original and now world-renowned Leadership Development Program (LDP)®, back in 1974.
The 4 Facets of Holistic Leadership
Like a button that relies on all 4 holes to secure it, those who take a holistic leadership approach find strength from weaving together 4 key facets of their lives:
Now, we admit the metaphor isn’t a perfect one. If you were to design a button to represent your own life — one hole for self, one for family, one for career, and one for community — it’s unlikely that each hole would be the exact same size. Unlike buttonholes, which are identical and symmetrical, in reality, these 4 facets of your life may be in flux or vary in proportion, especially over the course of your career.
But achieving balance doesn’t mean devoting equal attention to each part of your life at all times. In fact, we often say that “balance is a faulty metaphor,” because true balance requires understanding the importance of each facet individually and being intentional about how you prioritize your time and energy in each area.
Our decades of research have consistently found that leaders are most effective when they’re able to lead authentically. When leaders bring their whole selves to their roles, they’re better able to integrate their personal values and sense of purpose into their everyday actions, and support those they lead to do the same.
That’s why all our leadership programs now emphasize building self-awareness about personal values and understanding the ways these 4 elements of your life influence each other and work in tandem. This enables you to approach leadership holistically, with a values-based approach that leads to optimal outcomes.
How to Be a More Holistic Leader
Questions to Consider in Each Facet of Your Life for More Holistic Leadership
While we may be able to compartmentalize certain behaviors — for example, committing to not checking work email while on vacation with family — theres no such thing as compartmentalizing our careers, our families, our communities, or even ourselves. All aspects of our lives are intertwined, interdependent, entangled, and overlapping.
Most leaders recognize the importance of making time for these 4 facets, in a general sense. But it’s easy to lose sight of good intentions, especially when to-do lists feel endless.
To bring a holistic leadership approach to your own life and be sure your behaviors are aligning with your intentions, take some time to think about how you want to show up as a leader and as a person. Ask yourself the following questions to clarify your values and visions as they relate to each facet of your life.
- What energizes you?
- What gives you peace?
- How are you actively designing your desired future?
- What will you do to better prepare yourself to help others?
- Who are the people who love, support, and honor you? Who nurtures the greatness that resides within you?
- Are there people you need to grow closer to, or types of support and relationships that you need to nurture more deeply?
- Are there people from whom you need to distance yourself, in an effort to better manage your own energy and wellbeing?
- Are you just making money, or are you also making a difference?
- What do you want to give to your teams? Your organization? Put another way, what do your teams and organization count on you for?
- What is your hope for the future? What will you do to live into that hope?
- How do you serve others?
- How are you building connections to others?
- Are you establishing roots in the place you live?
- Are you helping to build a thriving community, whatever that means to you?
Integrating the Facets of Holistic Leadership With Intention
In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, any lines that once existed between self, career, family, and community have become even more blurred. For many people who were used to devoting their attention to work when they were in the office and devoting their attention to their families when they were at home, the pandemic meant they no longer had the luxury of that clearly defined boundary as they shifted to remote work or began leading in a hybrid workforce context.
Especially in the absence of physical barriers, it’s important to remember that the goal isn’t to distribute time and effort evenly among your commitments. Rather, you want to make sure your behaviors align with your values. When you have to transition quickly from an urgent work call to a child’s homework question, are you behaving in a way that shows your child you value the time you have decided to take with them?
If you can clarify your values as they relate to these 4 facets of your life, you’ll have a north star to guide your behavior and determine if you’re acting in accordance with those values and living with intention at all times, even when something unexpected comes up.
We believe holistic leadership will become even more important in the coming years, and it’s one of the things we highlight in our (Better) Leadership Project, where we focus on how leadership can (and should) evolve with our changing world.
How to Bring Your Whole Self to Leadership
3 Tips for Living Out Holistic Leadership
Now that you’ve clarified your values, take the following 3 steps to adapt how you live out those values as you move through your day and make decisions about your future.
1. Define how you currently devote your energy and attention.
Think about sketching a picture of your personal button. If you were to draw in the 4 buttonholes proportional to your time and attention, what would that look like today? How are you supporting your own wellbeing?
When you think about how you currently spend your resources, don’t overlook your mental energy — your most valuable asset that fuels your enthusiasm, motivation, drive, and physical energy to live a full life.
2. Ask yourself how you want to allocate your energy in the future.
In 2 to 3 years from now, it’s unlikely that you’ll want those buttonholes to be the same proportions. As your life evolves, your priorities will shift. Take time now to set achievable goals that align with your values and priorities. Ask yourself the following questions to help you define your goals:
- Self: What can you commit to for yourself?
- Career: What is one thing you can do to increase your positive impact at work?
- Family: What do you commit to do to love, support, and honor those you consider family?
- Community: What skills, talents, and/or abilities do you have that you can give to your community?
3. Determine the adjustments required to make appropriate shifts.
As a leader, you give life to what you give energy to. If you were to look at your calendar, you’d ideally see a collection of rituals and patterns that reflect your values. Maybe your calendar shows you consistently set aside time to exercise each day. Maybe you do a lunch date with your spouse every Friday. Maybe you call your parents every few days on your way to work. Maybe you serve on a community board for an organization you care about or spend time volunteering on the weekends. Being very intentional about how you spend your time gives you a sense of control and ensures you’re really living your life in accordance with your values.
If rituals and patterns that matter to you aren’t a part of your life right now, and you’re committed to staying accountable and making them a part of your life going forward, you may need to verbalize your commitments to others. Does your supervisor understand that it’s important for you to leave at a certain time every Wednesday to coach your child’s soccer team? Does your family know how important your morning walk is to your mental and physical health?
Communicate your values and priorities to the people in your life so they can help you follow through on your commitment to being a more holistic leader.
Why Holistic Leadership Matters
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” Shakespeare’s Henry IV famously said to summarize the burden of kingship. In other words, it can get lonely at the top.
Most leaders can relate to that sentiment. Being in a leadership role, especially as you move up the organizational hierarchy, means dealing with a lot of leadership stress. Left unattended, that stress can cause failed relationships, career derailment, and poor health.
But if you understand that you aren’t defined solely by your career — that it’s but one aspect of your life, and is enhanced when you make time for every other facet of your life — then you’ve laid the foundation for overcoming burnout and becoming a truly holistic leader.
And as over 1,000,000 alumni of our programs over the past 50 years will tell you, the button and its 4 holes can be a helpful symbolic reminder that only by taking care of yourself, as a whole person, can you weave the life you desire and leave the legacy you want.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
You can more intentionally align your actions and outcomes with your personal values, even during uncertain times. Understand yourself better and learn how to practice more holistic leadership at our flagship Leadership Development Program (LDP)®, available both in-person and live online.