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Your Leadership Summer

Use time away from the office to stimulate your development, and have fun doing it.

It’s summer: Time to set the out-of-office autoreply on your email and take a break from work. That is, if you can tear yourself away — Americans are especially resistant to taking vacations. Almost 75 percent of U.S. workers fail to use their allotment of vacation days, even though they are given an average of only ten per year. (Other nations are more generous: German workers, for instance, get six weeks of federally mandated vacation time each year.) But you may be able to rationalize more time away from your desk when you realize the ways in which your personal and professional life that can benefit from recreation. (Those same vacationing Germans tend to be more productive at the office than non-vacationing Americans.)

Recent neuroscience research has demonstrated that spending time in nature — as little as 90 minutes — can help ward off depression. Bird songs have even been shown to have a restorative mental effect. What better excuse could there be for taking a hike, hopping in a kayak, or pedaling your way through a park? Better yet, use this time to begin a new habit of communing with the non-glass, non-concrete, non-artificially-lit environment. Go camping or embark on a rafting trip. Get out of the bubble of your organization and your industry. Get involved in something where your familiar three-letter acronyms are superfluous. Learning something new can help refresh your mental models and stimulate innovative thinking; for example, if you go on a birding adventure, you can sharpen your ability to focus as you try to identify a certain species. You’ll build new patterns in your brain that can help you dissect and solve problems in other settings, and you’ll get a physical and mental boost that may well carry forward upon your return to work.

Personally, I find both birding and kayaking to be particularly beneficial. Birding requires you to move quietly through the environment, looking for clues and cues as to where to go next. Sometimes it requires sitting still and letting nature settle around you and reveal itself. Instead of striving to be noticed, your goal is to stay so still even the birds overlook you. This is a contemplative exercise akin to meditation; the past and future melt away, giving space for an intense experience of now. It encourages mindfulness, something that has been linked to leadership effectiveness. At the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, we teach that the first step toward leadership mastery is self-knowledge. Office environments do not generally encourage inward exploration; trees and wildflowers, on the other hand, do.

Office environments do not generally encourage inward exploration; trees and wildflowers do.

Kayaking can offer an analogous experience, though I prefer to do mine on the ocean, where things are often more energized. Anyone who has spent time on the sea, particularly in a nonmotorized vessel, knows that it requires you to be constantly attuned to the dynamics of your surroundings. A shift in wind or a sudden storm can put you in peril. I have been in four-foot swells in a small kayak — truly “white-knuckle” waters. It was daunting at the time, but I am happy to have had the experience, as I was when Minke whales popped to the surface to say hello as friends and I navigated the Bay of Fundy. Organizations perpetuate illusions of control; nature quickly disabuses you of any notion that you are a Master of the Universe. It is a reminder of how small we are amidst the vastness of the oceans. Such an experience helps you develop humility and respect that will serve you well as a leader. 

These vacation activities, and many more that can take you out of your everyday world, help cultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder. Effective leaders are often those who have learned to never stop asking questions — about themselves, the people who work for them, and the world at large. Those who stay in their safe zones do not develop the agility and adaptive capacity to thrive in today’s fast-changing circumstances.

Furthermore, vacationing in a new place can stimulate inquisitiveness. Everything from ordering breakfast to navigating public transit or encountering new art and architecture can both present a challenge and fire your imagination. If you are truly ambitious, try learning a foreign language before or during your trip. This has been shown to improve your ability to multitask, limit distractions, and pick up verbal nuances.

I may have exhausted you by now. You may be yearning simply to kick back and relax on a quiet beach. There’s benefit in that as well, especially if you bring a character-driven novel. Reading literary fiction has been shown to boost empathy, a key component in emotional intelligence. Research at INSEAD and elsewhere has shown that high emotional intelligence has been shown to correlate with leader effectiveness.

The pressures of work are constant. It may feel as if heading off on vacation means abandoning the ship or having to miss out on something critical. The truth is that your ability as both manager and leader is best tested and revealed when you are absent. If you have set a clear direction, cultivated strong team members, and crafted strategy and tactics fit to the task, things will be just fine while you are away. You will demonstrate confidence in your team and give them a chance to prove themselves.

So set that out-of-office message and unplug from work. You will return reenergized and ready to accomplish more than ever.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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