Work-Life Fusion, Saying No & Why Managers Are NOT Leaders

Niklas Göke
Apr 25, 2016 · 10 min read

>>An interview with Jurgen Appelo<<

For the second in our series of expert interviews, I sat down with Jurgen Appelo, who’s not only one of Inc’s Top 50 Experts on Leadership, but also a keynote speaker, author, dreamer and self-appointed creative networker.

You’ll learn

  • why you should tie your morning routine to a nighttime ritual,
  • where Jurgen draws the line between work and life (he doesn’t, and it’s interesting)
  • what the most important word on Jurgen’s 20 year journey to a meaningful career was
  • how he defines leadership and why that makes most modern managers, well, managers, but not leaders
  • and what you can do to lead yourself (it’s a 2-step process)

Here we go!

Note: This interview is brought to you by the coaches of

Niklas Goeke & Jurgen Appelo is all about habits. Right now, we’re very keen on learning more about the habits of leaders. A habit that keeps popping up when we talk to leaders is a morning routine.

How do you start your day? Do you have any daily rituals or routines?

Jurgen: Let me start with my evening ritual, because that ties to the morning ritual. It starts at around 11–11:30 PM.

st, I go through my Feedly feed, catch up on what’s new and mark articles I want to send out or tweet about the next morning. That takes about 20 minutes.

nd, I update my team on what I’ve done during the day, we use iDoneThis for that.

rd, I read a book. Reading is very important to me, and it has to be a physical copy of a book, usually a novel. I read for 30–45 minutes to calm down and then go to bed at around 12:30 AM.

This sets me up right for the next day, which starts like this.

st, I shower. Sometimes I take a peek at my smartphone before that, just to see if I’ve received any important emails, sometimes I don’t.

nd, it’s time for breakfast, after which I send the articles I picked the night before, using either Hootsuite or Edgar.

rd, I go back to inbox zero, by either replying instantly or putting an item on my to-do list, I use Remember The Milk. Then I also check my tasks for the day in there.

Once I have an idea what to do it’s time for coffee, which marks the end of my morning ritual and the start of my first task.

Now this is the ideal pattern, but if I’m at a conference or traveling, this changes a bit.

I notice that work is part of your morning routine, and I know there’s a reason for that. You often talk about self-actualization and work-life fusion — can you explain these concepts briefly to our readers?

Jurgen: Self-actualization means that the difference between work and private life starts to disappear, not because you’re so busy, but because you love what you’re doing. What matters is that my work fulfills me and then sometimes I get paid to do it, sometimes I don’t, but I don’t see the difference between work and life.

That means throughout the day I can’t say which hours are work hours, and which are not, I’m just trying to have a good time.

For example, I try to run 3 times per week. It’s important to me to have some exercise, and that also matters from a work perspective. But whether I do that on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday afternoon doesn’t matter, since I don’t have fixed work hours.

On the other hand, I also easily work on the weekends, which doesn’t bother me at all. Then again, I can I schedule a vacation whenever I want, and sometimes I just do business trips for an extended period of time, because I feel like it.

That’s what I mean with work-life-fusion. If you are able to find the perfect job, that fits you like a glove, as I always say, then you don’t really care per minute, which part is work, which part is life.

The perfect job.

You’re just trying to do a good job and have a good life at the same time.

For me, that is the case — it took me 20 years, but I think I finally found it.

You sure do seem to live a life that’s very much aligned with that — you love your work, which keeps showing in your talks and speeches, and many people want to get to where you are. Is there one habit in particular that has helped you the most on your 20-year journey towards reaching this point in your life?

Jurgen: Yes, I think it is having big goals. Having big goals has allowed me to easily say no to things that were distracting.

I’ve always wanted to write a book. For 10 years, I knew I wanted to be published.

Once I achieved that goal, I had my eyes already set on the next one, which was to be a keynote speaker at conferences and get paid for that.

I always have other goals at the horizon.

The goal at the end of the rainbow — keep looking for it!

When I started doing workshops, the goal was to enable others to conduct the workshops, since I’m not the best trainer in the world.

I always knew where I wanted to end up. If you have that, you’re much better able to say no to all these suggestions, opportunities and ideas from other people, since there’s so many things you could be doing.

This way I knew which suggestions would make me go off on a tangent and whether something would spin me around 180 degrees and send me in the wrong direction.

Sometimes I’d say yes to something that I knew wasn’t a perfect fit, but with a slight curve I might be able to steer it back — and that’s important, knowing when you have to say no, it has to be based on something.

For me, that’s always been knowing what I want to have achieved in a couple years.

So the timeline for the goals you’re talking about is usually a couple of years, because bigger goals with more impact make it easier to say no, right?

Jurgen: Yes, for example going from published book author to keynote speaker at large conferences, which I think I achieved 3 years later.

Jurgen at USI 2015, via Octo

That’s a decent time frame for ambitious goals, I think.

You teach companies how to develop a better culture, using games, tools and best practices. Your upcoming book “Managing For Happiness” is all about that. Are these practices aimed at turning more employees and managers into leaders? Do we need more leaders?

Jurgen: Yes, I do think we need more people to be leaders in organizations, because so many people expect the managers to be the leaders, something that’s often communicated in traditional management literature.

It annoys me tremendously to hear top management being called leadership, because usually they’re not people that the rest of the organization wants to follow.

But isn’t that the definition of leadership? Having followers who want to follow you voluntarily.

Anyone in an organization can start introducing better practices, if you have the ability to convince other people to start exploring those you are a leader — and in that sense, yes, we need more leaders.

However, that’s a different discussion than whether we need fewer managers, because often people claim managers should be replaced with leaders, which are really 2 different things.

It’s a different kind of role — I manage my finances, I don’t lead them.

Management is about maintenance, organizing and administration, that’s not leadership, but it still needs to get done.

Many of these management tasks can be delegated to employees, we can manage quite a lot with each other, especially thanks to all these new and better software tools. I call this self-organizing teams.

A small selection of the many tools that help us collaborate better — via Colorlib

So yes, fewer managers, but better management, which is very much possible, thanks to technology.

Management and leadership are both related and relevant, but that doesn’t make them the same thing.

Interesting, so we mix two different things, by thinking managers are always leaders and vice versa, even though management is something totally unrelated. It doesn’t even have to come from people, but can be achieved with many tools and practices, enabling employees to manage themselves…right?

Jurgen: Correct! Let me give you a specific example. The delegation board from management 3.0 — that’s a typical management practice. You set the boundaries for self-organizing teams, and then people can do whatever they want, as long as they stay inside them.

You can do anything you want — as long as you stay on the grass.

That’s a management practice, setting boundaries.

Within these boundaries plenty of leadership happens, like people trying to convince each other whether to hire someone or not, how to structure projects and which way to best conduct meetings.

The same person can be a manager one day, and a leader the next, but they’re still different responsibilities.

Interesting! Thinking more on an individual level, not all of us work in organizations, but still take on positions of responsibility, whether they’re a freelancer or organizing the Saturday afternoon book club — is there a piece of advice you’d give to individuals to help them adopt the habits of leaders?

Jurgen: First, people should read. Many have absolutely no clue about what the options are, what others have done and what you can learn from them. The only way to acquire that knowledge is by reading (or watching videos, taking online courses, etc.)

It doesn’t matter whether you prefer books or blog articles, as long as you’re consuming the information that’s already out there.

I keep reading that all successful people are avid readers, and while I don’t know whether there’s scientific evidence behind it, I believe it straight away.

The richest man in the world reads a lot. Do you? — via Own Your Success

The second step is to then go out and run your experiments. Try things out!

That’s all I do, by the way. I run management experiments. I don’t change people. I don’t tell them “This is what you should be doing from now on.”

I invite them to take part in an experiment by saying “Hey, I think this is an interesting idea, do you want to join me and see if it works?”

Usually people agree, because they think it’s worth a try. It’s much better to get people involved when you’re experimenting, rather than trying to change them. Nobody likes to be changed by others, but everyone loves participating in an experiment.

So two learnings.

  1. Accumulate the knowledge that’s already out there.
  2. Apply what you learn in your own context and see what works.

That second step is crucial, without it, the first one is useless. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten, asking me: “Could you give me feedback on my idea?”

But when I offered feedback, nothing happened! So now I just ask people to show me they’re experiments. Ideas are cheap, what’s expensive is the commitment and time it takes to actually run the experiments and execute it.

Okay, so two steps — learning and experimenting! Lastly, what is an unpopular opinion that you hold about leadership, something that you believe with all your heart that other people don’t agree on?

Jurgen: As I said before, it irks me to see top managers being called leaders.

You see it all the time in articles — “the leadership of the organization” — I call BS on that, and I seem to be one of the few.

I call the top managers managers, not leaders. They’re not leading anyone. There are usually other people in an organization, who do the actual leading.

It’s ultimately just a choice of words and nothing worth arguing about, but pretending that the managers of a large organization are also the leaders, who show everyone the way, is something I don’t agree with.

Jurgen, thank you so much for this interview! Where can people find out more about you?

There’s a whole bunch of places, but first and foremost, there’s my personal website,

My blog about creative networking lives at

My team and company have their home at

…and lastly, all the stuff regarding my book Management 3.o and the practices from that is at

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Niklas Göke

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Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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