We all wish we had more time to spend with loved ones and more energy to pursue personal goals. Only one thing prevents us from taking more time off, though. It’s not responsibilities, a long task list, or stacks of email - it’s fear. Taking time away from work as a leader takes courage. We fear that we will miss an important opportunity. We fret that we will discover our people can get the job done without us. We think our people won’t respect us if we don’t work harder than they do.
Ironically, by allowing these fears to drive our hard work, we decrease our creativity, energy, and even productivity! Take a different perspective. Opportunities don’t float around where we might miss them; instead we can more easily recognize and take them when we are alert and energized. If we lead well, our people will do the job better without us. That’s ok, isn’t getting the job done well the whole point of leadership? Ultimately, people respect inspiring leaders with a clear vision, not groggy over-worked managers trying to stay in the rat race. Bottom line, to maximize your productivity and personal fulfillment, you need to make time off a priority.
At Cairn Leadership, we believe in the power of outdoor adventure to profoundly help leaders grow. Taking time to go hike, climb, ski, or just explore the world helps you gain new insights, tap into uncharted creativity and most importantly recharge. If we spend all our time strapped to email and ever-increasing tasks, we lose this immense opportunity to live and lead well.
Recharge. Great leadership requires intense work and constant emotional strain. This absolutely exhausts people. Passion for leading fuels us, until one day we come up for air and realize we have forgotten how to breathe. I recently saw a former CEO of a fortune 500 company speak. He shared some surprising wisdom from his career such as, “you can’t survive putting out fires,” and “leadership drains your confidence and energy, you need to find a way to reenergize.”
The Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Moran, gets it. He recently ordered all flag officers to take ten consecutive days off every year. In part a high-ranking officer’s stress induced heart attack prompted this. Time away from work isn’t a nice to have, it’s an imperative.
Admiral Moran also knows if the top leaders don’t take time off, no one else will either. Ironically when we feel like we need to work harder than anyone else, the same fear causes everyone else to keep working harder to match the leader. Notice I say work harder, not more effectively. As a leader who cares about his or her people, you have a duty to take time off. Otherwise your people will follow your lead down a Sisyphean spiral.
Focus on Priorities. In her final address as CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi cautioned, “I’ve been blessed with an amazing career, but if I’m being honest, there have been moments I wish I’d spent more time with my children and family. So, I encourage you: be mindful of your choices on the road ahead.” We imagine the most successful leaders as the people putting in the most hours and climbing the ladder faster than anyone else. The current short-term pain for long-term gain pipedream leads to an estranged family, unwilling to spend time with the “successful” person or a “successful” person who has forgotten how to be truly happy. Could we reimagine success? Instead, what if we could work just a little less, and make a habit of spending that quality time now? It’s not a zero-sum game. It turns out that a couple hours focused on your family could just remind you why you work so hard, revive your energy, and even point out places you could improve as a leader- you can’t hire a better executive coach than a 5-year-old telling you how it is!
Empower. Though we say otherwise, often we don’t work hard because we want to be successful, or because our purpose inspires us. When we are not careful, leaders become driven by insecurity. Questions about other leaders working harder than us and feelings of guilt for not working the same hours as the people who work for us, force us into longer hours and tether us to our cell phones. This fear burns us out, and it holds our people back. Leaders who have the courage to empower their followers instead of trying to maintain control will end up working less for greater results.
Sheryl Sandberg told an audience at Harvard Business School, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” If you link yourself to every aspect of the work, your team will wither when you take time off to recharge and prioritize. If you can find the courage to truly empower, your team will thrive in your absence. Then you can think about strategy, and how to continue supporting their success in new ways- the job of a leader.
What is your priority? The truth is, at some point between 50 and 100 hours a week we are just moving things back and forth ineffectively. We spend hours doing tasks that would have taken 10 minutes in a well-rested state. We take days to make key decisions that would have taken hours for an energized team. It’s just math. We eventually become less effective as we continue to try harder. Unfortunately, in our bleary-eyed burned-out state we don’t notice our slow decline in effectiveness, so we simply continue to accelerate until we have an epiphany or a heart attack.
If you don’t make time off a priority, you simply won’t do it. It seems obvious that overworking and high stress harm your health and happiness. Maybe it’s less intuitive that you working harder actually harms your business. Having a less fulfilling life away from your family will be the tip of an iceberg. Your stifled employees will burnout or leave, your creativity and strategic thinking will plummet, and your decision-making capability will suffer. At the top, many leaders have so much energy and talent that they fight through these truths and point to themselves as evidence that this is wrong. In turn, I wonder how amazing their companies might be if they had the courage to let off the gas!