Having it all: The price of leadership

Arup principal Fiona Cousins serves on the board of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which focuses on the role of women in the building industry. The organization’s blog published her thoughts on leadership, which we’ve reprinted below.

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I’ve spoken to many people about the notion of “having it all,” both to satisfy my own curiosity and in preparation for speaking publicly about the role of women in construction. The idea of having it all clearly begs the question of what “all” could possibly be, and there are plenty of people who answered, quickly and perhaps flippantly, that they were strongly in favor of not having it all. But very few people have been prepared to say what they had given up that they wished they hadn’t — so perhaps they feel like they have it all anyway!

Of course, there were also longer, more considered answers, and putting these together, I think that there are two things that professional women think of, apart from their jobs, when they think about having it all: firstly, the conventional expectation that no woman is fulfilled unless she has children of her own, and the consequential mountain of expectations that we all bring to what good motherhood means. This is often linked to our expectations around the role of wife.

The idea of having it all clearly begs the question of what “all” could possibly be

Secondly, there is plenty of research that backs up a nagging suspicion that strong, assertive female leaders are not as well-liked by their peers as strong, assertive, male leaders — there’s something somehow unfeminine about the whole enterprise of leading. This is sometimes called the double bind: You have to be strong to be a leader, but if you are not well-liked you will soon find your head bruised by impact with the glass ceiling.

Both of these main strands of worry revolve around choices: choices about how you want to spend your time and choices about how you want to apply your skills and to be perceived.

Some of us have decided either that children are not for us or that we have better things to do. We, those of us in middle age, make up the first generation to really think that we can choose not to have children — those older than us just got on with it, those younger haven’t yet had to make a final choice. And a surprising number of my friends decided that they had to do it at 40, after years of thinking they wouldn’t bother.

The other frequent answer that gives us a clue about how we manage to have it all is that people feel it is possible to have it all, just not all at once. This is one of the underlying stories in the old movie Kramer vs. Kramer: the professionally successful father found that he couldn’t keep up with professional demands (unpredictable travel, unpredictable hours) once his wife left him in sole charge of his son, and he eventually lost his job, of course, at a critical moment in the custody battle.

Real life is also full of these examples, and many firms, ours included, now work hard to help people manage their work and family time. This theme of not enough time ran through Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic in 2012.

Having a balanced life

But this isn’t the whole story. Much of the corporate and social narrative around this suggests that we need to achieve a better work–life balance, as if work is not a part of life. My firm’s ethos is pretty clear on this: work and life are not separable, and satisfying work, of the type that you might want to lead, is a part of life, and deserving of the type of attention and care that you put towards the rest of your life. This is often not about the particular job that you hold, but what you think the purpose of your work is.

Work and life are not separable, and satisfying work, of the type that you might want to lead, is a part of life

Being a good leader is about having a balanced life: you have to nurture your best, healthiest self in order to be able to bring your creativity, enthusiasm, and verve to your work, as well as to the other things in your life. I would argue that to be a good leader you need to be happy and fulfilled, and the ingredients of such a life will be different for different people.

The work–life dichotomy is clearly too much of a simplification. There is a good deal of literature that suggests that achieving balance means paying attention to work, home, and some other thing — described in some cases as the “third place.” The crux of the argument is that everyone needs somewhere where they don’t have to work so hard, where there are no chores, where the stakes are lower, where you are reminded that you are yourself. In my experience, just one third place is nowhere near enough to support creativity and generate joy, and I can think of at least four, clearly separate, regular activities that feed my soul.

Fiction helps us here too. There are many people that need more in their lives than just home, and don’t work just to make a living. My friend recently explained to her six-year old that “Mummies need their own lives too.” Many of my college friends are seeking work as publishers, doctors, and lawyers now that their children are hitting their teens; Mrs. Kramer needed more than just family to keep her sane; Desperate Housewives are desperate for a reason; and we identify with Mad Men’s Betty Draper as she casts about for something real to do or to feel. Doctors sometimes used to recommend another baby to solve this in a way that we would find unimaginable now.

Focus, focus, focus

Whether you choose to view life as a balance between work and life or between work, home, and other activities, it is important to remember that to be good at what you do needs you both to be skilled and to have an assignment that allows you to apply your skill.

We all have to live on 24 hours a day, and how we spend those hours is our choice

Becoming skilled is something that takes time. Most of us have spent the full 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell’s research tells us we need to learn our technical trade, as well as several thousand more hours honing the professional skills that we need to work as consultants, run projects, run teams, run meetings, and look after our staff. This time has to come from somewhere, but I think it is not especially helpful to consider this time as a price. We all have to live on 24 hours a day, and how we spend those hours is our choice. We come to leadership by making choices, and I believe that we will be most successful, at everything, when our chosen activities support both our personal well-being and our professional lives. To make those choices, it is helpful to have a clear idea of what we want, a “direction of travel” that will serve us for some period of time — not necessarily the next 20 years, but at least the next 20 months.

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