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How to Practice Holistic Leadership, Even During Uncertain Times

employee at home with daughter representing holistic leadership

Weave a Full Life by Integrating These 4 Facets of Holistic Leadership

Imagine one of your shirt buttons: round, with 4 holes, holding your shirt safe and closed. Picture those holes. Thread weaves between one hole and then the next to create a secure attachment. You can pull and twist your button as you fasten and unfasten it, but when the 4 holes are interlaced well, the button holds tight to your shirt.

Since the start of our Leadership Development Program (LDP)® back in 1974, we’ve used a button with our participants as a symbol for holistic leadership. That’s because, like a button that relies on all 4 holes to secure it, holistic leaders find strength from weaving together 4 key facets of their lives:

  • self,
  • family,
  • career, and
  • community.

Leaders are most effective when they understand that these 4 elements of their lives not only influence each other, but they also work in tandem, enabling them to create holistic leadership — a values-based approach that leads to optimal outcomes.

When leaders bring their whole selves to their roles, they’re better able to integrate their values into their everyday actions, as well as support those they lead to do the same. 

infographic with text

The metaphor isn’t a perfect one, because unlike buttonholes, which are identical and symmetrical, in reality these 4 facets of a leader’s life may be in flux or vary in proportion.

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.

But achieving balance doesn’t mean devoting equal attention to all parts 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 and being intentional about how you prioritize your time and energy. That way, your actions reflect your values.

4 Facets of Holistic Leadership

Most leaders recognize the importance of making time for their families, their careers, themselves, and their communities. But it’s easy to lose sight of good intentions, especially when to-do lists feel endless.

To bring holistic leadership to your own life and be sure your behaviors align 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.

1. Family

  • 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 supportive relationships that you need to nurture more deeply?
  • Are there people from whom you need to distance, in an effort to better manage your own energy and well-being? 

2. Career

  • 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?

3. Self

  • 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?

4. Community 

  • How do you serve others?
  • 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?

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.  

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Leading with Intention: Integrating the Facets of Holistic Leadership

We may be able to compartmentalize our behaviors — for example, committing to not checking work email while on vacation with family — but in terms of how life is truly lived, there is 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.

And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, any boundaries that once existed between self, career, family, and community have become even more blurred for many people. For example, employees 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 no longer had the luxury of that clearly defined boundary as they shifted to remote work.

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 a 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?

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How to Bring Your Whole Self to 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.

Again, think about a button with 4 holes. Now imagine that the button is blank. If you were to draw in button holes proportional to your time and attention, what would that look like today? 

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.

  1. 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 button holes 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?
  1. 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 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. Being intentional about how you spend your time gives you a sense of control over living your life in accordance with your values.

If rituals and patterns 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 those 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 these priorities to the people in your life so they can help you follow through on your commitments.

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 at the top means dealing with a lot of leadership stress. Left unattended, that stress often causes derailment, burnout, failed relationships, and failing 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 facet of your life — then you’ve laid the foundation to become a holistic leader.

And as over 100,000 alumni of our LDP program over the past 50 years will tell you, the button is a helpful symbolic reminder that only by taking care of yourself, as a whole person, can you weave the life you want and leave the legacy you desire.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

You can intentionally align your actions and outcomes with your personal values, even during uncertain times. Learn the skills to practice more holistic leadership with our Leadership Development Program (LDP)®, available in both in-person and online formats.

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October 8, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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