Take Five is one of the great jazz hits of the 20th century. It’s also a good phrase to remember for project-consumed managers, geniuses, and entrepreneurs.
Work Beyond Work
Leaders often face problems others don’t understand—especially related to evenings, Fridays, holidays, and days off in general.
Most people look forward to finishing up their workday or workweek and taking the evening or weekend off to spend time with friends and family. But innovators typically enjoy some of their most productive hours after others go home. It’s when they can think and process the day. And work more.
The problem is that this leads to a lack of any real time out—any break to be spent with real people outside the corporate enclave, any respite, or even personal growth in other areas. It results in work from early morning to late at night with no letup. Such individuals even dream about the tasks at hand, or don’t dream at all because of a lack of adequate sleep (you know who you are).
The Model Leader
There are some intuitive reasons for this pattern. Leaders can’t always plan when those they lead need direction and accountability. The best leaders don’t micro-manage their workers, but if they’re good at what they do, key players want access to them during critical workflows. Their knowledge and insights concerning important decisions, or during crises is often seen as critical.
Innovators lead by example, demonstrate excellent habits and routines, and show what it means to contribute. So they can’t be seen slacking or dropping the ball. The perception is that if a leader pauses, the result is a loss of productivity.
The truth, however, is that leaders who can’t pull back from the action, haven’t trained their teams to self-manage, self-regulate, anticipate and adapt. They haven’t modeled good leadership. They’ve taught people that they are indispensable, rather than a guide along the way.
Sometimes leaders do this intentionally because they want to feel valued, but teams have the greatest respect for leaders who develop the entire group’s capacity. Such groups are far more capable even if left alone.
The best leaders plan and determine direction a few steps ahead of their teams. They do this so they can delegate responsibility and back off. They work to show their teams the big picture, and give them the space to find a way to achieve a shared vision.
Great leaders also don’t overvalue themselves or care if they receive the proper praise. Organizational researcher Jim Collins has ably demonstrated that what he calls “level 5 leaders” are less concerned about public accolades than they are that the companies they build thrive. They’re concerned more with fact than perception and outperform their competitors.
The 24/7 Entrepreneur
Recently making the rounds again on social media is a reputed quote from Bill Gates, which goes something like this: “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.” I’ve also seen it attributed to Richard Branson.
Perhaps some billionaire tycoon out there said it. While you can find it in tabloids and quote sites, the factuality of it is in many ways irrelevant, because it’s crazy.
If you teach your people to never take a break—never have a day off—you are teaching insanity and paving the way to burnout. You’re advising people to throw away the very friendships and family ties that make success worth achieving.
It’s no secret that beyond damaging relationships and missing out on real life, there are physiological and psychological effects from overworking.
Is it true that some people work 24/7 and make millions—billions even? I don’t care. And you shouldn’t either.
Success achieved by being unethical, habitually unsafe, or self-destructive (as in leading to your or others’ untimely death), is not success.
The underlings in this equation have little control; overwork cascades from the top of the organizational pyramid to the bottom. —S.G. Carmichael
Sarah Green Carmichael in her Harvard Business Review article outlines they cyclical nature of bad managerial habits: “Managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours — nights, weekends, vacation — without complaining. The underlings in this equation have little control; overwork cascades from the top of the organizational pyramid to the bottom.”
In other words, leaders not only mess up their own lives but impose the cycle on everyone around and under them.
Is Hard Work and Balance a Paradox?
Too many managers believe that it’s impossible to get ahead unless you work yourself and your teams into the ground perpetually. But research continues to show that this, just like the idea of the ideal customer, is a myth. As reported by Yale School of Medicine, a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in June 2016 demonstrates that “working long-hour schedules over many years increases the risk of heart disease, non-skin cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.”
Beyond 50 hours per week, men and women both suffer negative effects over time.
In a study of more than half a million participants in the US, Europe, and Australia, researchers “found that those who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of stroke compared with those who work a 35- to 40-hour week. They also have a 13% increased risk of coronary heart disease.”
Long hours has also been linked to depression.
Don’t Replicate Reckless Abandon
Carmichael points to several issues including a “mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”
A sense of purpose is important but an overinflated arrogance leads people to prove to themselves and others that no one can do what they do. They are “essential” to everything in their care.
But great leaders develop other thinkers and doers and help them to see their own purpose within the organization. They often do this by being intentionally absent for one or more days, and leaving a project in what they trust to be capable, if imperfect hands.
Over time, the greatest managers can be gone for longer periods of time, or be focused on completely different efforts, even while present. When their leadership teams fail at something, they don’t immediately castigate them for poor performance. They debrief, regroup, and induce the kind of critical thinking and ingenuity of others that fosters real personal growth and trust.
As a consequence, the individuals they mentor don’t need to be told where they went wrong. They accept their own failures and own the path to reinvention and success.
Go Where the Data Lead
The corporate world is beginning to realize that as the general public learns how unhealthy it is to work incessantly, promotion of a new work-life-balance is actually an incentive to attract and retain new hires. In 2010, Netflix was among the first to offer unlimited vacation time to its workforce, and the trend has continued.
Virgin more recently followed suit saying, “Flexible working has revolutionised how, where and when we all do our jobs. So, if working nine to five no longer applies, then why should strict annual leave (vacation) policies?”
This is not to say you need to have unlimited vacation time for your employees. Some now rather have mandated vacation time, where the company removes the stigma of a “break”, and people are required to take time off. Others incentivize vacation time—One company provided $1,000 to workers to seize the opportunity and take a break.
As a leader, it starts with you. You could implement any plan you want for your employees, but if you don’t model it, they won’t believe that they really have the latitude to rest.
Plan to Reboot
It’s less about your particular strategy than it is about having a strategy, and a way to recharge, and nurture your people—even protect them from physical or mental health issues.
The research is clear: the human frame will break down when abused. Don’t destroy the body you have, and don’t permit those around you to suffer either.
Like a car without engine oil or coolant, so are people without the reinvigoration of fresh air, downtime, and social interaction.
So reboot every now and again. Take five throughout the day, take a day or two each week, and take a week or two every so often to recalibrate and resume your work with increased energy, focus, and purpose.
*Inspired by the song “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, recorded in 1959. A jazz masterpiece, the track is eponymously named for its unusual 5/4 time signature.