These days, we often get very little nutrition out of our lives. From the food we eat to the products we consume to the work we do, it seems that we have barely scratched the surface of the value they provide before we are busy consuming something else. I had barely learned how to use the word processor on my computer before I found myself “needing” a bigger, better, faster one with more advanced programs and a memory space I will never come close to filling. It is the same way at work—jumping to the next priority, the next big idea to fill our voracious appetites, but before we even finish chewing, we are looking onto the horizon for the next big thing.
As a result, we find ourselves with insatiable appetites, dwindling attention spans, and in a constant state of stress and fatigue. And I wonder—how much of what we consume escapes us? How much goes into the toilet, the trash, and the bookshelf of forgotten ideas? We can extract every bit of goodness out of even the most meager of rations if it is necessary for our survival. In an age of unprecedented consumerism, we are constantly told that if we do not buy into the newest gadget, activity, and designer medication invented, that our economy will collapse. Aren’t we good enough consumers?
At the same time, economies of scale have challenged us as producers. Disappearing in many parts of the world are handmade crafts and locally-produced items. In the agribusiness of the western world, many farmers can’t make a living on 20 acres of land—or even 50. A sack of potatoes that would keep a starving family alive for a week routinely goes on sale at the supermarket for a dollar. And many of those potatoes end up soft and with eyes wildly growing out of them, seeking soil for roots but finding only garbage. What really is the value of a potato? It depends on who you ask.
Just as everything in life, there is a balance in opposition. Sometimes we need to starve, and sometimes we need to feast—but mostly, we need moderation. Is this not what the major religions have been teaching us through practice and words for thousands of years? Is this not the secret to a happy life that we constantly forget as we burn ourselves out? In the end, the lesson is this—sustainability is survival. And no doubt, in a time of unprecedented waste, more crises are bound to emerge that will teach us this lesson again and again.
So what does this mean for leaders? In the busy pace of today’s world, it is more important than ever to save some energy for mindful reflection. There is a great deal of knowledge to be gleaned from even the smallest experiences and by exploring our daily surroundings in a compassionate quest of learning. I am reminded of a something I once heard that when someone in the modern world complains of hunger, what he is referring to is his appetite. Perhaps this is the reason why we digest so little of what we consume, both literally and metaphorically. Hunger is a powerful motivator, while appetite—the wanting that is not tied to need—is not. Hunger drives the learning curve; it keeps us mindful and in a state of heightened awareness. Appetite keeps us in a perpetual state of craving with no resolution or enduring sense of satisfaction. Is it no wonder that too often we seem to have an appetite for new ideas but no real hunger. In such conditions even the best training may not take hold and catalyze the organization for needed change.
Relationships are another area where appetites rage. In a networked world, it is not uncommon to have hundreds or even thousands of “relationships” on LinkedIn and Facebook. How many of these are interactional relationships? Social networking is an important, powerful, and meaningful tool, but it does beg the question—how can one person maintain so many relationships in a sustainable and respectful way? At the very least, it is essential we do that with the people we lead, those we serve, and those with whom we spend our lives.
This is done through increasing our self awareness and awareness of the needs of others through developing the skills of mindfulness and empathy. An ancient proverb says, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Although it is important to know what kind of organization we want to lead, it is just as important to consider what kind of organization we want to return to the next generation of leaders we are borrowing it from. When we make these considerations—when we choose to lead in a sustainable way—we find ourselves honoring the sacrifices and commitment of those we lead—and those we follow—rather than trivializing them.
Adam Smith famously said, “All production is wealth.” But in the same sentence, he also said something most people forget, “and there can be no wealth without human exertion.” It is critical we not lose the connection between the two statements. In this connection is a lesson to be learned about the relationship between work and wealth. Relationships take work—an amazing amount of work. The same goes for change initiatives, leadership development, stress management, and other things we care about. In a hard economy and a time of unprecedented uncertainty, it is prudent for each of us to take stock of what truly maters to us personally and allocate resources—attention, time, and commitment—to ensure they nourish us and those around us over the long term.
What nourishes and sustains you?