Now is the time of year when we return to what matters most in our lives. We reflect on what we've done and we commit to making things better in the year ahead.
What a great and powerful moment in the Jewish cycle. For without this annual taking stock, how can we evolve to become the person we want to be and build our legacy as a positive force during our precious time on earth?
I spent much of this summer traveling the country, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them.
Here's what I heard: There's much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic and with no other purpose than to merely survive. Demand for change is the order of the day, as it has always been in our Jewish tradition. I'm struck by how different the work world is today and why a new approach to leadership — no matter where you are or what you do — makes sense.
This new approach is all the more necessary given the new demands on our time, as well as our evolving aspirations. Throughout human history, the sun's relationship to the earth was what determined when people worked and when they rested. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people. New communications tools promise freedom from time and space, but it's just dawning on us that we need to learn new psychological and social technologies, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of nonstop pressures that come at us through the tethers we call cell phones and Blackberries.
The Jewish tradition's respect for meaningful and useful boundaries is clearly evident in the concept of Shabbat, which creates a natural separation in our lives. This tradition holds lessons that are more relevant today than ever.
But, just as there are boundaries, there is also a strong need for integrating the various parts of our lives. When the different aspects of life fit together as one — perhaps the essential Jewish idea, to which the Shema prayer calls our attention — then everything in life seems better.
The age-old Jewish commitment to social justice and respect for the world around us is returning to favor in American business. Employers are learning that people perform better in their jobs when they bring passion into the workplace, when they are doing what they believe matters to the world, and when they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. Greed and competition were '80s cool. Green and collaboration are '08 cool.
Being a leader is not the same as being a middle manager or a top executive. Being a leader means inspiring committed action that engages people in taking intelligent steps, in a direction you have chosen, to achieve something that has significant meaning for all relevant parties.
Individuals can do this whether they are at the top, middle or bottom of any group. And they can do this in businesses, families, friendship networks, communities and social associations.
This may be easy to say, maybe not so easy to do. There are a few simple principles that can help:
· Be real — by acting with authenticity and clarifying what's important in all parts of your life.
· Be whole — by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life.
· Be innovative — by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it.
Anyone can bring these principles to their lives and perform better in all aspects. You just have to make an effort to reflect and grow, bolstered by those you enlist to push and encourage you. This is just what our Jewish tradition challenges and inspires us to do, especially during the High Holidays.
We need to focus on what matters most and to consciously take small, realistic steps toward acting on it. You'll spend your precious time more intelligently — better aligned with your values, using more of your natural talents to pursue passionately the goals to which you're genuinely committed. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, "Life without commitment is not worth living."
In these Days of Awe, as we reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your "living" makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn't, consider taking one small step toward making it so. Experiment with a change that aims to make things better for you — your mind, your body and your spirit — and for the people around you at work, at home and in your community.
Stewart D. Friedman teaches at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life.