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Robert Bruner

Robert Bruner

Robert F. Bruner is the Dean of the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, and author of a blog and several books, including The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's Perfect Storm.

Quitting Work Addiction

Less is more. The leader's art of vacationing well is all about setting limits to connectivity.

But this is not easy. Much of how a leader succeeds is through daily routines of connectedness with an ecosystem. Connect well, and you really feel the pulse of the environment. This helps you do your job. But for some, this kind of connectivity looks like an addiction: a regular need for a "hit," an indifference to good versus bad connectedness, irritability when out of touch.

One CEO I know routinely diverts his attention from meetings and conversations (even one-on-one) to send emails and text messages. Such behavior is consistent with what the writings of Bryan Robinson and others call work addiction. Healthy leaders know when to say when.

Taking vacations can be part of a larger discipline in "saying when" that includes eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and even napping. Interrupt the siren song of work, and you find time to goof off, get perspective, rest, refresh, and renew. Returning to work, you are better able to address the annual cycle of challenges and opportunities.

The problem is that the world may not cooperate with the vacations of leaders. Stuff happens that you can't ignore. Unlike Jimmy Cayne, the CEO who allegedly played bridge while Bear Stearns began to slide downward, good leaders want to be on the case when crises arise. You have to strike a balance.

What to do? Here are six tips:

1. Commit to yourself that this vacation is a time to "say when." Envision returning to work rested and renewed. Then envision what has to happen on your vacation to achieve that. Finally, assert that you will make it so.

2. Tell the ecosystem. Let your assistant and direct reports know that you basically don't want to be bothered--that you will be "offline" except for the truly critical stuff. Ninety-nine percent of what is in your inbox can wait until you return. You must trust your staff to identify the one percent that can't wait and then send you a message. Getting the buy-in of your boss or stakeholders takes a different approach. It probably depends on efforts months earlier: giving them plenty of notice about the vacation; letting them know that you are serious about "saying when;" and pledging to respond if issues arise.

3. Walk the talk. Leave the electronics out of touch. Check the Blackberry once or at most twice a day. Be present with your family or friends. Do not get diverted by the lure of connectivity.

4. Get active. Some leaders are so absorbed in their work that "saying when" confronts them with a massive vacuum--how should you fill it? Let the vacation occupy your mind and body. I'm not big on sedentary vacations. My best breaks involved hiking, biking, and kayaking, organized by a professional outfitter, like Backroads. It's hard to check your Blackberry while holding onto the handlebars of a bike, a fishing rod, or a tennis racket.

5. Get away. It's also hard to check in if there is no Wifi or cell connectivity. In my own experience, going into a dead zone correlates serendipitously with Dullsville back at work--if this isn't true for you, at least trust your staff to get word to you somehow. City-dwellers will find it hard to imagine the existence of such places, but they're much more common than you think. Africa and Antarctica could fill the bill. So could West Virginia or Chincoteague.

6. If trouble reaches your vacation doorstep, take a deep breath. Before swinging into high gear, ask yourself, "Is this really a Jimmy Cayne moment?" What are the consequences of delay or inaction? Consider whether a light touch might suffice; delegate as much as possible; make a conscious decision about how much time you will give it; try to say when. If it is truly an 11-alarm fire, get back to the office ASAP but block out a replacement vacation on your way back.

General Robert E. Lee averred that the art of generalship is fundamentally the art of choosing where to fight your battles. You can choose how much to connect and whether to work on vacation. My advice is: set limits; say when.

By Robert Bruner

 |  August 12, 2009; 10:37 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I am thankful for Bob Bruner's down to earth comments--including his awareness that leaders may have a spiritual (that's not about religion) dimension that needs feeding, too. When one's spirit gets time and care and feeding, then we are less likely to step on others, take unfair advantage, and make me-first decisions. Wider spiritual maturity among our American leaders could have averted many of our recent melt-downs and national failures. President Obama seems to know that "as we sow, so shall we reap," and it keeps him from losing his cool--even when dealing with his most unprincipled critics. That's the way our national heroes handled themselves in the past; it shows Pres. Obama is a student of history and a man of principle. He'll move us beyond racism by his example.

Posted by: Augusts20 | August 24, 2009 3:34 PM
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One thing I failed to mention which you can attest; Leaders are wired differently than most people. Like physicians, work requires them to be at the ready 24 hours a day. Like the 6th man in basketball, they need to contribute now and not later. There is a fine line between a manager and a CEO and it is not always the education that is the factor.

Experience and the skill sets are the things that are not always appreciated, but define the good ones from the great ones. It is what you do with what you have that defines success versus failure. If we do not fully appreciate those attributes we possess and employ them when called upon, we will always remain one step behind.

In todays world, there is no room for laxity. When there is an unstable world, than those who are leaders have to look out for the entire team and not just themselves. That is the one main ingredient that will determine your success in the long haul. Sacrifice is one that is rarely spoken, but is integral to the overall outcome.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | August 13, 2009 9:04 PM
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Wonderful article. All of your points are well taken and logical. However, whenever someone sleeps, there are others awake. When someone vacations, another is working. Whenever there is a person jockeying for position, there is someone trying to elbow them out of the way. When you let your guard down, there is someone who will take the spot you vacated.

In a real world life situation, if everyone was on the same page, you would not have to worry about taking time for yourself, your colleagues, your family and your community. However, it appears today there are facets of people who are trying to grab what they can, and don't care about who they steamroll in the process.

Anyway good article. I get your point and I and others will take that under the appropriate advisement. Thanks Doc.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | August 13, 2009 8:48 PM
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All of your comments seem so very sane to those leaders who have seriously burnout and then recovered, however it wouldn't be standard corporate practice. My book on leadership called Sex in the Boardroom covers many of the same points you have discussed so let's hope that this VIP information gets out to more and more corporates. It is not just about the leader's health (mental and physical); it is about the whole organization. If senior executives don’t set a good example, then they are putting added pressure on everyone below them to do the same and that crazy work ethic continues. It does not bring increased productivity; rather it brings ‘sick’ people to the fore and increased expenditure in many, many ways. It is very easily measured and I do regularly with my clients so that they can see the real cost of their behavior.

Posted by: IBCoaching | August 12, 2009 11:06 PM
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