Family first: Hoping Obama's approach to work-life balance leads to believable change

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and his daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, watch on television as First Lady Michelle Obama begins her speech at the Democratic National Convention, in the Treaty Room of the White House, Tuesday night, Sept. 4, 2012.

In October, I discussed Silicon Valley's often dim view of work-life balance, a designation many seem to view as describing "Losers, Not Closers," as I put it.

Entrepreneurs (and others) prioritizing time with family rather than job are often perceived as insufficiently serious, not quite dedicated to the difficult work at hand.

Today, I encountered what seemed like a very similar attitude in an irritable (not the first adjective that comes to mind) Politico feature on the First Family.

Starting with the headline, "President Obama's Not Quite Camelot," the article seems to take Obama to task for spending time at home with his family, rather than glad-handing in DC.

"In the four years since he has taken up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.," the Politico authors write, "Obama has left the lightest of footprints on the town he had promised to embrace and transform, adopting instead the role of a suburban dad."

According to the article, Obama "makes sure he's home for dinner almost every night. He's been an assistant coach for daughter Sasha's basketball team and brags about never missing one of his girls' parent-teacher conferences."

The central issue seems to be that Obama's "natural inclination is to turn inward, towards his family."  Others have suggested this reflects an insular attitude, and have argued Obama would be more successful at achieving his political aims if he spent more time socializing informally with other politicians, and if he seemed more comfortable when he was doing this.

Figuring out how to balance a demanding career and a commitment to family represents a difficult if not impossible balancing act for almost everybody, and I suspect that in many intense workplace environments, efforts to prioritize family time often elicit just the sort of suspicious critique you see in the Politico piece.

My wife and I had a very different reaction to Obama's decisions: shock and awe (in a good way), a response that doesn't invariably extend to his policies (e.g. his shockingly disappointing selection of Hagel for State - I'm with Stephens and Koch here).

We responded with similar enthusiasm to stories about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who reportedly leaves work each day at 5:30 to be home for dinner with her family at 6.

Some may point out (see this discussion in WSJ's "The Juggle"), quite reasonably, that it may be easier to make time with your family if you are a senior executive, and enjoy autonomy not available to others.  Perhaps so, but I'd argue there's exceptional pressure on these executives to demonstrate commitment to work and performance, and I'd be surprised if most Fortune 500 executives prioritized family time the way Obama and Sandberg do.

Hopefully, inspired by their example, this restrictive mindset will start to evolve, and we'll begin to see the sort of change in organizational attitude that workers of all political stripes can believe in.

 

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About the Author

 

David
Shaywitz
  • Dr. Shaywitz trained in internal medicine and endocrinology at MGH, and conducted his post-doctoral research in the Melton lab at Harvard. He gained experience in early clinical drug development in the Department of Experimental Medicine at Merck, then joined the Boston Consulting Group’s Healthcare and Corporate Development practices, where he focused on strategy and organizational design. He is currently Director of Strategic and Commercial Planning at Theravance, a publicly-held drug development company in South San Francisco. He recently wrote Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entreprenuers Heal Healthcare With Technology? 

  • Email: davidshaywitz.aei@gmail.com

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