Stewart D. Friedman: An interview by Bob Morris

Stewart D. Friedman

Currently Friedman is a Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  Friedman is founder and director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project and he founded Wharton’s Leadership Programs for both the MBA and Undergraduate divisions.  Friedman was director of academic affairs for Wharton’s undergraduate division and has won numerous teaching awards; The New York Times cited the “rock star adoration” he inspires in his students.  From 1999 to 2001 he was a senior executive at Ford Motor, where he was responsible for the company’s global leadership development strategy and programs.  He was an advisor to Vice President Al Gore and Jack Welch on work/life issues and was chosen by Working Mother as one America’s 25 most influential men in having made things better for working parents. Friedman earned a BA degree at the State University of New York at Binghamton and MA and PhD degrees at the University of Michigan.  His most recent work is Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, published by Harvard Business Press – an award-winning book that reached #3 on USA Today’s national bestseller list.  He heads a group that brings Total Leadership to organizations and communities worldwide in order to improve performance in all parts of life – work, home, community, and self – by finding mutual value among them.

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Morris: In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes that have occurred in the U.S. workplace during the past decade? 

Friedman:  The world has changed dramatically since I began teaching at Wharton in 1984, and incredibly fast in the past decade, with profound impact on every aspect of business life.  The changes demand a new approach to business.   Perhaps the most significant shift has been the digital revolution and how this has altered every aspect of our lives, especially work.  Ours is the first generation in history, for example, for whom the decision about when to work and when to rest is – at least for many of us – an internal one rather than a reaction to the relationship of the earth to the sun.  Like all technological revolutions, the arrival of such tools precedes our capacities to use them intelligently.  Right now we’re in the midst of a grand experiment on how best to harness the incredible power of the Internet while we struggle to maintain useful boundaries among the different parts of our lives.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what impact have these changes had on workers’ efforts to balance career and personal obligations?

Friedman: Managing the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives – family, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit) – is now a much more daunting task.  The good news is that there are ways to realize the promise of greater focus and presence on the moment for better performance and results, but it does take discipline and practice to get there.

Morris: Especially within the last few years, there has been a great deal attention devoted to employee engagement or the lack thereof. Recent Gallup research indicates that indicating that 29% of the U.S. workforce is engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, “mailing it in,” coasting, etc. What about the other 16%? Are they engaged? If true, how do you explain these statistics?

Friedman: Yes, there is a crying need to fix the problem of disengagement and distraction, though it’s difficult to assign accurate numbers to how many suffer this problem.  The interesting question is the diagnostic one:  What causes people to feel disconnected and unfocused? My research and practice indicates that people need to be doing work they love and to love the work they do.  They need to feel that their efforts matter for the people and causes about which they really care.  Further, they need to be doing work with people they respect and enjoy.  Finally, they need to feel free to choose where, when and how it all gets done. It’s not easy to put these conditions in place, but it is certainly possible to do so, as I have seen and shown in my work in organizations and communities using the Total Leadership approach.

Morris: With all due respect to those who occupy C-level positions in organizations, how best to develop effective leadership at all other levels and in all other areas of an organization?

Friedman: My view is that leadership is not about position – you can lead very well with no one reporting to you in a hierarchy and you can lead quite poorly with many people below you in the traditional chain of command.  Leadership is about mobilizing people toward valued goals, and anyone can do this, in any aspect of life.  The other thing to keep in mind is that the answer to the question I often get – Are leaders born or made? – is an emphatic yes!  All leaders are born, and all are made, through devoted practice of reflecting on experience to learn what’s worked and what hasn’t, good coaching and accountability pressure to grow, good luck, and, of course, some talent.

Morris:  I highly admire William L. McKnight. In 1924, CEO of 3M at that time, he observed, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” In your opinion, why are the hearts, minds, and souls of workers enclosed within “fences” in so many organizations?

Friedman: What a powerful and complex question!  There are many causes for this tragic circumstance.  I think the most critical element is fear.  Executives are afraid of losing control if subordinates try to roam too far.  Conversely, hierarchy squelches talent by forcing rote standardization through the punishment of failure, a necessary accompaniment to experimentation. 

Morris: Even in the most highly-regarded schools of business such as Wharton, there is room for improvement. In your opinion, in which specific area is that need most compelling? Why?

Friedman: Business schools must make the issues of leadership, teamwork, and culture a clearly visible priority if we are to maintain legitimacy and credibility as a source of knowledge for successful practice in today’s global economy.  I’m proud to say that at Wharton our first-year MBA program now begins with an entire week solely dedicated to these topics. 

Morris: Now please shift your attention to your most recent book, Total Leadership. In it, you urge your readers to reflect on and explore the importance of four domains in life (i.e. work, home, community, and self) and then determine whether the goals pursued in each are in synch, whether your goals are aligned with the interests of the most important people in your life, and how you can experiment to create sustainable change that enables a better match between your actions and your core values. You’re talking about becoming a more complete, well-integrated person. That may be a journey rather than a destination, one that few people complete.

Friedman: What we’ve found – having introduced this approach to students, organizations, and communities around the world – is that it works because it does indeed help people systematically pursue the ideas about which they care most in life.  There is a very high level of engagement in a leadership development program like this where the goal is to improve performance in all parts of your life, not just work.  It’s a journey of discovery indeed; one that most, though certainly not all, people are eager to take in a more intelligent way, and in a supportive context in which they both give and receive coaching support from peers and others. 

Morris:  What kinds of results have you observed as a result of companies implementing this process?

Friedman:  The really good news is that when you give people the tools and the support to pursue what I call “four-way wins” – that is, improved performance in all parts of life – they are actually much likely to achieve these wins and, through the process, develop further their leadership skills.  In research on the impact of the Total Leadership program, we’ve seen that satisfaction and performance in all domains goes up, especially in the domain of the self, even as the amount of time and attention to work dips.  This is because the process requires you to focus on what really matters, when it matters, and when you do this, your productivity improves.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say 3-5 years), what do you think will be the single greatest challenge that business leaders will face and must somehow overcome?

Friedman:  Boundaries.  How do you draw the lines among the different parts of your life so that you can be successful in all the realms you deem important?  And how do you ensure that your people experience the same possibilities, even if their values are different from yours?  

Morris: Which question do you wish you had been asked – but weren’t — and what is your response to it?

Friedman: “What, if anything, gives you hope about the future?” The optimism and energy of young people pursuing their dreams.

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