Are we yet at the end of the beginning of this pandemic? My heart says no. My head agrees. Even the simplest of business planning exercises tells us that any attempt to return to the old way of life and lawyering is not yet an option. Life, how we conduct ourselves and how we do business have changed and we need to adapt accordingly.
One challenge is that to move to the next phase – one that will almost certainly be characterised by a series of second waves and intermittent service at best – is going to require a shift in mindset.
The thing is that many of us are shattered right now. This is particularly true of our leadership team – those who need to set the course of action and take us with them. The careers and wellbeing of many lay heavily on the shoulders of leaders and we ask a great deal of them.
Leader fatigue is real and it has implications for the individual and the organisation that they manage.
Where’s your head at?
The amygdala – the part of our brain which keeps us safe in a crisis – can only respond with one of three options: fight, flight or freeze. Even as you are sat reading this article, it’s quite possible that that part of your brain is set to DEFCON 3 or even 2. The recent months have been lived in a heightened state of fear and requiring survival.
The rational part of an adult’s brain – the prefrontal cortex – responds to situations with good judgment and in consideration of long-term consequences. But this part of our brain only gets to work when the amygdala is certain that we are safe.
Remaining under stress for extended periods is exhausting. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. For the rational part of our brains to be able to fully engage with the next phase and to deal with all its complexities and to make the right decisions, we need a break. Survival mode needs to give way to thoughtful/reflective mode for the sake of our wellbeing and the decisions we take.
Benefits of taking a break
Time away from the business will be good for three main reasons. First, it helps improve your perspective. How often have you come back to an issue only to spot something different after rest and at a distance? Approaching the problems of the next phase with the mindset of the first phase may well prove counterproductive – yes, we are still in survival mode, but we also need the business to perform in the new economic environment. That balancing act requires new thinking.
Second, your empathy levels rise again. Being human and humane can be exhausting and leaders need to use empathy to do their job well every day. We can’t climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs if we haven’t eaten, rested and slept well. The biggest mistakes I have seen made by leaders have been when they are stretched, tired and haven’t been able to adapt to the new challenge at hand. Normally level headed individuals can become irritable and petulant, undermining years of their good work.
Finally, it’s good for the long-term future of the business as deputies get to step up. They’ll learn a whole lot in this interlude about running the business, who they need to call on and where they need help assistance and guidance. The business is stronger for it.
What prevents leaders from taking a break?
The fear of how it’ll be perceived. How will it look if you take time off in the midst of a crisis? First, it’s worth noting that if your personal brand is based on empathy, then you’re going to have fewer challenges than if your brand is whipping people to bill every second possible. If you can explain the need for the break to your own leadership team and more broadly within your business, then you’ve probably passed the first hurdle.
Trying to obfuscate or fudge what you’re doing won’t go well. A simple communication stating that: “I’m taking a few days off to spend some time with my loved ones and prepare for the Summer/Autumn phase,” is unlikely to go too far wrong. Especially when paired with “X will be deputising for me for the period and will be in contact with me regularly.” I can literally name who the Managing Partner’s deputy was for some of the firms I have worked at, even all these years later. That kind of clarity resonates across the whole business. As does a lack of clarity.
The fear that something will go wrong. If something does actually go wrong, then your deputy will contact you and you may well need to return to work. They know where you are and, in 2020, anyone can be contacted almost anywhere in the world within seconds. This excuse is one that leaders need to let go of. Plan and delegate and it’ll be fine.
What kind of breaks do leaders need?
The same as the rest of us: daily, weekly and vacations. Each of the three types of break adds something to the leader’s ability to peak perform. Daily breaks are hard for leaders who are always being pressed for “just five minutes of your time”. Strangely, remote working makes these short pauses slightly easier and a daily walk with the dog is a great way to reset and make the rest of the day more productive.
Weekend breaks are essential for leaders to be able to give themselves to the next week fully and to subconsciously reflect on the prior week. It’s essential to limit emails to slots in the day at most (be clear with your time about when you’ll be available) so that you can make time to properly switch off and relax.
Two-week holidays are essential to punctuate the activity levels for the rest of the year. We need longer breaks to fully replenish, gain perspective and, If necessary, change course.