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Take a Break and Lead Better?

Hi, I trust you and yours are well.

Thank you always for reading my books and free bi-monthly broadcasts, and using my tools and strategies for winning in a VUCA world with freedom, power and peace of mind.*

*You probably know by now: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Perhaps you also know the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times 😉

Take a Break—you’ll be a Better Leader

Are you nuts?! you might say. How can you possibly think that slacking off is good for results? Put your shoulder to the wheel, push push push, nonstop action is the motto.

If you think that, I agree with you. Or I used to. I don’t know about your days, but mine are filled to the rafters with action. It lies in the nature of leadership: you always have more commitments than you can possibly handle.

And in all likelihood my inbox will still be full when I die. (How about that for a morbid thought.)

Recently I gave myself a break. After a successful meeting with a client, I took two hours time-out and went to the Kunsthaus, Zurich’s main art museum.

As I wandered the hallowed halls, losing myself in the art of Böcklin, Hodler and Valloton, not to speak of the 15th-century Dutch masters, I was gradually filled with a sense of timelessness.

I guess work has always been stressful. Just ask a Jewish slave in ancient Egypt or a serf in Tsarist Russia. Compared to them, who had to haul stones across the desert or toil in the fields of their overlords until they dropped from exhaustion, most of us have jobs that are a walk in the park. Supposedly.

And yet, modern career pressures can threaten health and well-being just as much. I know multiple senior managers who suffer from burnout. Stress can even kill you—in Zurich alone, three top executives killed themselves in recent years.

Source of Stress

Even if we don’t pay the ultimate price, what is the source of the stress in our lives?

Take the time crunch. Even a serf or a slave might have enjoyed a lax hour here or there while his or her masters were not watching. But today’s combination of email, WhatsApp, social networks and management by objectives grip workers like an iron shackle.

“The pressure to stay forever connected has taken a toll on the time we once instinctively devoted to renewing and recharging,” wrote Tony Schwartz in The New York Times, in an article aptly titled “The Personal Energy Crisis.

Want to be more productive? Take a mini mental vacation. There is growing evidence that regular breaks from mental tasks enhance productivity. They even enhance creativity.

The inverse is also true: skipping breaks can lead to stress, exhaustion, and even a shorter lifespan.

(By the way, if reading this blog post distracts you from your work and contributes to your stress level, my apologies. I hope your future times of stillness off the grid will richly compensate you for any anxiety, guilt or other pressures my post might add to your life. Maybe, just maybe, reading this post will boost your breaks and your effectiveness. Then it will have been what my marathon coach used to call “money in the bank”…)

Be kind to Yourself

Breaks can induce guilt because you say No to the pile of work you could (or should) be doing. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, said that “most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

So curbing your own self-criticism—actually forgiving yourself—can go a long way. A recent study found that those who score high on self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and cope better with struggles at work.

Being the boss does not mean less stress, quite the contrary, at least if you are a baboon. A Princeton University study of monkeys in Kenya showed that alpha males suffered just as much stress as the lowest-ranking members of their primate societies. Surprisingly, “Beta males, who fought less and had considerably less mate guarding to do, had much lower stress levels.”

Importance of Stillness

A final factor that can shorten your lifespan is dysfunctional office politics. A study at Tel Aviv University found that people who felt little or no emotional support from their colleagues were 2.4 times more likely to die over the 20-year period of the study.

The ability to step back and gain perspective, and ultimately to come up with the right judgments, has been a hallmark of the most distinguished leaders in history. Great leaders, both Western and non-Western, regularly withdrew from the world to be still, reflect, or meditate, so that the right choice could reveal itself to them.

The most distinguished leaders in history, from Churchill to Mandela, took time out for stillness to tune their moral compass and lead more decisively.

Winston Churchill was born in a much slower century, when declarations of war still took months to arrive in diplomatic pouches. He used to sit outside his house most days after lunch, at the edge of the pond he had made with his own hands, thinking, brooding, and watching the ducks.

He would not permit himself to be disturbed. He would sit there, sometimes for hours, and then return to Parliament in a decisive spirit. Churchill’s success in defeating Hitler in World War II stemmed at least in part from his courage to step back from the heat of the action.

Churchill’s contemporary (and adversary) Mahatma Gandhi sat, fasted, and prayed at his spinning wheel in order to see what was next in his mission to free India; “Freedom,” he wrote, “is often to be found inside a prison’s walls.”

And in the second half of the last century, Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years of enforced isolation in prison. During that time of isolation, he developed a resolve of steel. Upon his release, Mandela emerged with utmost clarity on what was needed to end apartheid and build a modern democracy in South Africa.

These leaders acted and took time to be still on behalf of countless people who depended on their wisdom and insight. Each had to find inner clarity in the midst of turbulence; each knew that his decisions would affect countless lives.

Stillness allowed these leaders not only to rise above the fray, but also to get their priorities clear, and to say No to things that were urgent but not really important, even to pressing or popular demands for which there was loud clamor.

Just as they did, those of us who are leaders, whether in politics, industry, or daily life, have to find the silence within that is conducive to purposeful action. It is in stillness that you can find your way, your ethical compass as a leader.

No person or book can ever give enough advice to cover even a fraction of all the challenges a leader might encounter. Unless you can be still and access the quiet power that stillness makes available, you miss out on one of the most valuable leadership tools.

So find the regular practice of stillness that works for you. It need not be a museum. It need not be a nap. One of my coaching clients in Hamburg used to take his BMW for a spin at night and speed along the German Autobahn at 220 km/h. That was stillness for him. Go figure.

Action. Define one regular practice—a daily ritual—to recharge your batteries and sustain your peak performance. And post it here. Sometimes it’s good to make your commitment public so you box yourself into actually doing it. I look forward to reading you.




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