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How Total Leadership Came to Life

Preface to Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life

Thomas QuoteBy the mid-1980s, my professional life was humming. I had finished my graduate work in organizational psychology, begun research on leadership development, and landed my dream job at The Wharton School. But my wife, Hallie, and I had been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for some time. By 1987, we had weathered two miscarriages.

Then, finally, at 5:30 AM on a beautiful autumn morning, our first child, Gabriel, arrived. In a warmly lit room in Pennsylvania Hospital I stood transfixed, holding this practically perfect being for the first time. Wrapped in a yellow blanket that covered him entirely except for his calm face, Gabriel looked at me and around the room, taking it all in. I wondered: What must I now do to make our world a safe and nurturing one for him?

I could not get this thought out of my head. A week later, I arrived back in my Wharton MBA class on organizational behavior and set aside the topic for which we’d all prepared that day, on motivation and reward systems. Instead, I told the story of what had just happened to me. I tried to extract the meaning my story might have for these talented students and incipient business leaders. “What responsibility do you have,” I asked, “for creating work environments that help to cultivate the next generation? What will you do, as a business professional, to weave the strands of work, family, community, and self into the fabric of your own life?”

Hanson QuoteI don’t remember much of the details of that class session – it’s a blur – but I do remember the vehement reactions it evoked. About half the class scoffed, unwilling to see personal life as a relevant topic in a business school. The other half thanked me for raising such questions and for bringing more of myself to our collective dialogue.

I didn’t know it then, but that moment changed my career. By giving voice to my feelings about what was important in my own life, and connecting them to the interests of others, I began a new journey. I saw how my professional role was enhanced by who I was in other aspects of my life, and I refocused my research to reflect the importance of bringing the whole person to work. I saw more clearly that, for me, understanding the interplay between work and the rest of life wasn’t just personal, it was my calling.

Some years later, in the early ’90s, I spoke on the topic of careers at a meeting of the Academy of Management, a scholarly organization for faculty in business schools. I talked about how fatherhood had changed my career. I spoke about decisions such as giving up opportunities for tenure-track positions in favor of staying in Philadelphia for the sake of my family. Again, I found that in telling my life story I was enriching my work, this time by giving voice to similar themes in the lives of my colleagues. I made some friends that day, people who appreciated hearing about an alternative to the standard academic career model. I was learning lessons first-hand about the value of authenticity, integrity and creativity.

At this time, I was immersed in the chaotic world of large-scale organization change. As the first director of the Wharton Leadership Program, I was trying to create a new model of business education for Wharton, one that encouraged students to question their assumptions about career success. Students kept journals and provided feedback to each other. It was challenging – sometimes uncomfortable – for everyone involved. We at the Leadership Program felt our initiative was significant not just because it was new, but because it took an approach to leadership that responded to a real need and that attempted to integrate “telling your story” into the learning process.

We explored the intersection of career and life interests, using data we were generating through the Wharton Work/Life Interests Project, an initiative that gathered information from thousands of students and alumni. We were making connections between leadership development and personal-life challenges. Sparks flew. Students had to think about ways of forging careers that fit with their deepest values. In workshops I ran for business professionals on how to integrate work and personal lives – and how to find solutions that worked for individuals as well as for their businesses – I found an unquenchable thirst for useful knowledge, especially (but not only) among women.

Galinksy QuoteAt the same time, I was also consulting with companies committed to leadership development. The business world was embracing the idea that learning leadership was not just possible, but imperative to fostering organizational vitality. My work included designing educational experiences for nascent leaders and blending these experiences into a company’s career-advancement system.

As an outgrowth of these activities, I was invited to create a leadership academy for a major American manufacturer. In 1999, I left academia to test my ideas in a corporate setting. The new CEO wanted to connect leadership development with the need to help employees find better ways of integrating work with the rest of life. Such integration was essential to attracting and retaining the best people. Our programs were dedicated to learning leadership by doing it, and we had to ensure that each of our participants produced value for the company while at the same time growing as leaders. We wanted them to think creatively about enhancing the company’s value to consumers, but we also wanted participants to see themselves in a new light; as reinvented, more confident leaders.

One program for high-potential middle managers focused on what was then called the “new economy”; it needed to prepare people to lead in the burgeoning digital world. As this program’s purpose crystallized, it dawned on me that we could imagine new technology in the service of developing leadership capacity for all of life. Total Leadership became my shorthand for a new way to think about leadership, from the point of view of the whole person.

Participants in all our programs were required to undertake some form of creative challenge, some new initiative. For this program, the initial goal we set was to improve business results by enriching lives. We would, as this apparently paradoxical purpose suggests, produce improved performance at the company by integrating work more effectively into the whole life of the developing leader. That leader would, in turn, create opportunities for others to do the same in the company, and beyond.

We created something new: a program that starts and ends with the person – not the business person, but the whole person. Since returning to Wharton in 2001, I’ve refined this program while offering it to business students and professionals in a variety of settings around the world. I have come to see that the point of Total Leadership is to create what I now call “four-way wins”-better results at work, at home, in the community, and for your self.

My purpose with Total Leadership is to bring the possibility of four-way wins to you, showing you step-by-step how to be a better leader by having a richer life and how to have a richer life by being a better leader.