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Work-life juggling for leaders

(U.S. Air National Guard Photo)

(U.S. Air National Guard Photo)

NEWCASTLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD ASE, Del. --

If nothing else, the past few weeks have shown us that our lives, and those of our families, can quickly be thrust into the unknown.  As military members, the coronavirus and associated COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with many opportunities to serve in a multitude of roles. How successful we are in each of these roles is often determined by how well we manage our time and balance those responsibilities against other roles in which we serve.  For example, I strive to be an effective leader for my organization.  If I had no other responsibilities, I would be able to commit 100% of my time, focus, and effort toward my position as command chief.  However, as much as I would like to pursue the level of expertise that commitment would afford, it’s simply not possible … nor is it healthy.  I have other responsibilities, such as those of a husband, father, brother, friend, etc.  Finding a way to serve our airmen while fulfilling my other responsibilities can be a challenge, but when balanced properly it can provide a huge sense of accomplishment, as well as model a skill that others may find appealing.

You’ve likely heard of the term “Comprehensive Airman Fitness and how it lends itself to overall well-being.  For those who haven’t, it’s basically a “work-life balance” that suggests when we’re mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually healthy, we are more productive, happier, and often find ourselves in more satisfying relationships. Many examples of work-life balance analogies exist. However, I’d like to share a modified version of one that was initially presented by Bryan Dyson, a former President and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises.  He demonstrates this balance by describing life as a constant shifting of priorities; or more specifically, as a great juggling act. 

In this analogy, our priorities are Work, Health, and Relationships.  To represent these priorities, our metaphor will be three balls that must be kept in the air: a RUBBER ball, a STEEL ball, and a GLASS ball.  Each ball must be kept moving because holding too tightly onto one may cause us to drop the others.  Naturally, we don’t want to drop any balls while we juggle, but we need to consider the different consequences in case we do. 

First, we have the rubber ball.  This is our typical role at WORK.  Given the choice, this is the one we can most easily afford to drop.  If our focus on work suffers or if we drop the ball, we have our teammates to help us and an organization that is dedicated to ensuring the mission succeeds.  If the rubber ball drops, it bounces back up, often allowing us to continue juggling without missing a beat and without affecting the other balls very much.  If we drop this ball, our work life will bounce back, usually in a short amount of time.  However, consider the irony of the rubber ball.  Although it’s the easiest to recover if dropped, it tends to be the easiest to hold onto since it has a great surface to grip and it’s not too heavy or too light.  Basically, it’s the most comfortable to hold.  Of the three balls, we often see this one dropped the least.

Now consider the steel ball.  This represents the role we play in maintaining our HEALTH (physical, mental, and spiritual).  This one is heavier than the others and when we’re tired because we’re going non-stop, our hands get a little sweaty which can cause this ball to easily slip through our fingers.  When this ball slips, it means we’re not taking care of ourselves.  We’re not exercising like we should, we’re not eating and sleeping like we should, or we’re not giving ourselves time to relax and take a mental break from our day-to-day routine.  Perhaps it means that we’re risking exposure to illness which could compromise our health.  In life, dropping the steel ball might manifest as being more susceptible to, or getting sick, stressed, or fatigued.  Thinking about the current pandemic and how critically our health affects our readiness, we simply cannot afford to drop this ball right now.  We must take every action to ensure we’re ready when called upon by our wing, state, or nation.

Fortunately, like the rubber ball, it’s relatively easy to recover if we drop the steel ball.  Airmen, like steel, are pretty durable.  We tend to recover or find ways to manage if we get some bumps or bruises.  The problem is that the steel ball – our health – won’t simply bounce right back for us to continue juggling without missing a beat.  When we drop the steel ball, it takes time.  We have to take a knee to pick it up, then we have to dust it off and buff out the scratches. Then we spend some more time to polish it up again.  Although steel may not necessarily break, with enough “drops,” you’ll eventually end up with scratches that won’t buff out, and dents that can’t be fixed – scars that tell the story of how much it’s been dropped.  Furthermore, while we’re nursing that ball back to health, we have to stop juggling the other balls, meaning we tend to neglect them while we focus on getting healthy again.  Another option, where possible, is that someone else might need to take over our other roles.  Still, given a little time and effort, we’ll recover and get our juggling act back in sync.

Finally, let’s think about the glass ball. This is the role we play with family, friends, and personal relationships.  It’s much lighter that the first two and very smooth.  In fact, it’s a little slippery at times and sometimes more difficult to see when compared to rubber and steel.  At times, we take for granted how fragile this ball is and even neglect it in favor of the other balls.  But beware!  If we drop this one, it can’t just bounce back into the action.  If we drop this ball, we may not be able to just pick it up and dust it off or hand it over for someone else to manage.  If we drop the glass ball, it may chip, crack, or even shatter … for good.  The glass ball is the most important for us to care for, nurture, and respond to if it begins to fall.  Simply stated, we may not get another chance if we drop our glass ball so we need to keep an especially close eye on it as we juggle it among the others.

So, as we continue to develop as leaders, whether that means continuing our education, developing our personal or professional roles, or honing the skills of our respective AFSCs, we need to encourage each other to maintain the proper balance across the different areas of our lives.  In this time of unprecedented challenge, we have an opportunity to achieve unprecedented success.  As our current events get chiseled into our children’s history books, are you confident that our motto of “Always Ready, Always There” is more than a catchphrase?  Continue to analyze the roles you’re juggling and understand the risks of allowing any of them to slip. Remember, we don’t want to drop any balls while we juggle, but if one must slip in an effort to keep the others going, make sure you’ve thought beforehand about which you can afford to drop.