Strategic Leadership Journal
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Lessons in Leadership:

Rest or Fail

  Joel Hoomans

Turn your midlife crisis to your own advantage by making it a time for renewal of your body and mind, rather than stand by helplessly and watch them decline.

Jane E. Brody

 

An Opening Analogy

Several years ago I recall hearing a manager tell an emotional employee to leave her “personal problems at home” – as if she could actually divorce the trauma of her personal experience from her work persona. I recall thinking how insensitive and ridiculous that request was. Of course it is impossible to segregate our emotions, conscience, thoughts, etc., simply by the locale of our physical being. These things stay with us no matter where we go. As human beings, we are a complex composite of physical capacities, perspectives, interests, talents, experiences, wounds, weaknesses, willfulness, values, and ethics which accompany us across our destinations and shape the way we act and interact.

 

The Problem

However, as leaders, we attempt the same foolishness of this manager when we attempt to address our professional and personal life demands, at the expense of ignoring the need for rest.  The human body, mind, and spirit are fully integrated in every one of us. They are also limited and can only endure so much. As we expend our energies in problem solving, risk-taking, conflict resolution, holding others accountable, facilitating strategic planning efforts, communicating, and executing, we eventually deplete our finite energies. We often lose sight of the fact that unlike natural resources - such as minerals, oil, etc., which are often used to the point of depletion - human beings are renewable resources… providing they are treated as such. This treatment begins with our personal stewardship of our own time and resources. When we ignore the need for rest, as part of our work-life integration strategy, our health and performance will eventually suffer.

The Need for Rest

So how much rest do we need and what does rest accomplish? According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need approximately seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, the typical American gets an average of 6.9 hours and a third of us try to get by on six hours or less (“Sleep Problems” msnbc.com). Studies on sleep over the last century reveal that Americans are functioning on less and less sleep. This trend threatens to undermine our health, as well as our talents, skills, and abilities, as it very subtly erodes this critical source of renewal. Perhaps part of the reason for this trend is our ignorance of the value of rest. As many of us attempt to deal with the increasing demands of life, we are often tempted to cut into our times of rest because they are viewed as times of inactivity. These restful periods of seeming inactivity are assumed to accomplish little in the way of direct value creation (salary, competence/satisfaction, promotion/power, etc.).

A closer look at times of restoration dispels this mindset. In fact, medical science reveals that rest is essential to our physical well-being in that it helps increase infection-fighting antibodies and maintain a sense of mental ‘happiness’ (Stickgold, et al.). Research also indicates that this kind of rest helps the brain edit and sort the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that bombard the conscious brain throughout the day, enhancing our memories and mental faculties (Stickgold, et al. 1).  Even more recently, German researchers have proven that our sleeping brains continue to work on problems that baffle us during the day (“Study Confirms,”cnn.com). Countless studies on sleep reveal its multiple benefits, in addition to reinforcing its necessity.

Consider, however, that the concept of rest takes us beyond sleep. Many definitions of rest (short for restoration) go beyond simple references to sleep and also include concepts like recreation and reflection. These collectively contribute to the renewal of our energy necessary for engagement, increased focus, better prioritization, and proper perspective. If the value of rest is to be rediscovered amidst our 24/7 schedules that require acute reflexes, savvy communication, and global collaboration, it has to be seen for what it is – something far more valuable than seemingly simple inactivity. Rather, it is an essential function of the highly effective leaders who place the concerns of their long-term performance over the fleeting short-term and low-value interactions that play havoc with their work-life integration.

How Rest Deprivation Causes Failure

When rest does not happen, we begin to fail. If our emotions don’t give us away, our bodies surely will. Author Oscar Wilde relates; “By the age of forty everyone has the face they deserve” (Willard and Frazee, 21). Eventually, if we do not take time for restoration, our bodies (including the skin on our faces) and minds begin to break down – disease, depression, degeneration, etc., takes its toll. According to some of the latest research on the deprivation of rest, this can culminate in quality of life issues (such as our sense of ‘happiness’) (“Sleep Problems,” msnbc.com) or even life threatening conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease (Stickgold et al, 1). However, the real casualty is our otherwise reputable performance as leaders.  New research on sleep and rest has determined that inadequate amounts of rest adversely impact our creativity and problem solving abilities (“Study Confirms,” cnn.com), as well as our relationships, productivity, and alertness (“You Will,” msnbc.com). In fact, one study indicated that those with adequate rest were three times as productive as those without adequate rest (“Sleep Problems,” cnn.com). As leaders, our competence casts a large shadow.  We place our families and our entire organization at risk when our decision-making skills and problem solving skills are retarded by a lack of restoration. When neglecting our need for rest, we may be able to fool ourselves, however, in the end this need will not be cheated and the resulting fallout will humble even the most gifted of leaders.

Rest & Burnout

The perpetual neglect of rest will culminate in burnout.  This is a process that will slowly and surely undermine the best leadership talents. The research and writing on burnout by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter relates that the negative slide to burnout starts from a position of strength and success, rather than from one of weakness (25). They relate that the signs of burnout are typically that energy turns into exhaustion, involvement turns into cynicism, and efficacy turns into ineffectiveness. Eventually burnout leads to disengagement, ineffectiveness, and failure. 

Rest & Ethics

It is also interesting to note that recent research by Deloitte & Touche would seem to suggest that a lack of rest, in the grand scheme of one’s work-life balance formula, could also potentially impact ethical performance among leaders (Morgan-Olson, 1). “If someone invests all of their time and energy into their jobs, it may have unintended consequence of making them dependent on their jobs for everything – including their sense of personal worth. This makes it even harder to make a good choice when faced with an ethical dilemma if they believe it will impact their professional success” (Morgan-Olson, 1).  Ninety-one percent of all those surveyed believe that people behave ethically at work when they have a good work-life balance (Morgan-Olson, 1). Rest is an important ingredient in the work-life integration formula – helping us to maintain perspective, learn, leverage our values, and live our ethics.

Learning To Rest

As leaders, we are smart people. At some level of our consciousness we are aware of this need for restoration. Our conscience tells us, our bodies tell us, our demeanors and actions tell us (as well as others), and hopefully we have a few trusted-truth-tellers around us that also tell us and hold us accountable for imbibing in it. When we ignore this need due to other pressing priorities, the fault does not lie with the corporation, the person we report to, the demanding customer, or the needy child on the home front. The fault is uniquely ours. We must value rest enough to proactively establish the habit structures that reinforce restoration through sleep, recreation, and reflection. Our long-term success depends on it. Our present success is enhanced by it. Here are a few ‘best practices’ to keep in mind when planning your approach to rest:

  • Manage Your Time & Make Time For Sleep – Time is not a renewable resource…once spent, it is never recovered (this makes it more valuable than currency). Every one of us has 24 hours in a day with which to work and manage. Purposefully re-think how you use it (e.g. to whom and to what you give your energy). Make every effort to line up the use of this time with your values. Protect your days off.  Above all else, make sure you allow for seven to nine hours of sleep. If this is a challenge, seek medical expertise that can help you get to this mark. When it comes to sleep, remember that midnight is supposed to be the middle of the night and not the beginning of it.  Entrust the late night and early morning hours to Jay Leno and his supporting cast.
  • Proactive & Reactive Vacation Allotments – Plan to schedule the majority of your vacation time for proactive and strategic break times that follow the most demanding times in your work schedule. Make sure the destinations are in line with the affects you wish to accomplish – relaxation, romance, exhilaration, adventure, learning, etc. Leave a small piece of your vacation for emergency periods of rest which can be taken as needed.
  • Work Smarter, Not HarderTo state it in a positive sense, rest makes us smarter. When you don’t get enough rest you are more liable to make costly mistakes that require re-work and create stress. Proper rest will help you make the most effective use of the time that you do work. If you are prone to worries that inhibit rest, make lists (by priority) and practice leaving those things on the list until you can come back to address them later - when you are equipped with the energy for excellence.
  • Invest in Hobbies & Your Support System – Set time aside each day for activities and people you enjoy. Use them to unwind from the stress of your day and to renew your enthusiasm. Don’t spend all of your energy at work – intentionally leave some for those at home. Use one night a week for an extended saturation in this time (more than an hour). If you don’t have a hobby or broad enough support system – explore and pursue them by asking other leaders how they have developed them.
  • Take Micro-Breaks – During your workday, take a fifteen minute break or two from your work and reward yourself with a walk, an eBay purchase, a snack, or friendly conversation. Use these to kick start your day, get you to your target heart rate, break up the monotony/stress, or as a form of reward/remuneration.
  • Define Your Availability – Protect your time off from interruptions and distractions. Make these times of availability a habit and publicize them so that those who depend on you know what to expect. You have to use the ‘off switch’ during these times and turn off your cell phone and other electronic leashes. You don’t owe anyone an excuse for protecting your source of vitality and effectiveness.
  • Develop Others Through Delegation – Involve and engage others with opportunities to learn and take on new responsibilities. Every task they can successfully take on is potentially an investment in your ability to rest while you are out of the workplace. There is nothing like processes and people that can fulfill the mission of the organization in your absence…and put your mind at rest.
  • Plan Time For Reflection – Find or create a quiet place for thinking, reviewing, censuring, and prioritizing the day. This will maximize your capacity for learning and planning. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that a study of 20,000 leaders by Zenger and Folkman revealed that the one statistically significant habit they found among the most successful leaders was that they took time for reflection (9/17/2003). 
  • Make Time for Solitude - British psychiatrist Anthony Storr relates: “It appears…that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best and if the individual is to fulfill his [her] highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovating, and maintaining contact with one’s inner world are all facilitated by solitude” (O’Neil, 110). This time will differ from person to person: for one a quiet walk will suffice, for another an extended retreat is necessary. This may by closely associated with the prior point on reflection.
  • Spiritual Engagement – It only makes sense that if we are to attend to the body and mind, we should also attend to our spiritual component. Utilize church, reading, and fellowship to renew yourself spiritually. This recommendation may surpass all the others, as it concerns itself with the very source of our life and energy.
  • Avoid the Guilt – Rest is not inactivity. Its purpose is to increase your leadership effectiveness and this is in the best interest of your reputation and the needs of your customers, boss, direct-reports, etc., - even if they don’t know it. Consider the fact that God Himself rested on the seventh day (following His own creative efforts) and it’s part of His design for us as leaders.

Conclusions

While rest is counter-culture to the 24/7 global economy that never sleeps, it is an essential characteristic of effective leadership. While we all know we need to rest, many of us sabotage our own success when we fail to leverage it in our lifestyles.  This is nothing new. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah relates;

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says:
       “In repentance and rest is your salvation,
       in quietness and trust is your strength,
       but you would have none of it.

       You said, 'No, we will flee on horses.'
       Therefore you will flee!
       You said, 'We will ride off on swift horses.'
       Therefore your pursuers will be swift!” (Isaiah 30:15-16)

Clearly, the Israelites realized the need for rest but ignored it. Today, we do the same thing when we ignore this core requirement of the job and choose to ride our contemporary horses. For instance, the information technology revolution has increased productivity by 70 percent over the last 25 years, with the promise of saving us time (“The Real,” msnbc.com). In fact, instead of saving us time, University of Southern California professor Warren Bennis relates, “everybody I know is working harder and longer” (“The Real,” msnbc.com). One of the casualties amidst this phenomenon is rest.  As leaders we must come to our senses and learn to realize that there is a lot at stake when we make this sacrifice. In the end, not only will we personally suffer for this neglect of our restful needs, but so will the organizations, family units, churches, and other community partners that we can no longer serve effectively when we burnout. I often hear leaders taut – almost heroically – about their lack of rest in a manner consistent with martyrdom. This may gain the sympathy and errant admiration of others for a brief time, but this does not make up for the lost benefits of rest. These touts can easily lead to excuses, broken trust, ethical compromise, and scorn. In contrast, I would suggest that a living and effective legacy is always better than the legendary scandals that follow our fallen leaders in government, business, and church segments across the country. Part of what turns good managers into great leaders is the self-realization that we are composite creatures with renewable capacities. When we ignore this, we find out that a burned out executive is a burned out husband, wife, friend, or parent…and vice-versa. Every role we occupy either benefits or suffers, depending on our utilization of time for rest and renewal. Leaders must re-discover this overlooked, but essential, ingredient to long-term leadership development. Take your leadership to the next level by putting this knowledge into action…and learn to rest, before it’s too late. In the long run, prevention is always cheaper and less detrimental than treatment and attempts at recovery.

In addition to his responsibilities as Assistant Professor of Management and Leadership Studies at Roberts Wesleyan College, Joel Hoomans is also the Director of Graduate Studies in the Division of Business.  Prior to these academic roles, he worked for Wegmans—the premier grocery retailer in the United States—as a human resources professional, eventually becoming their first Manager of Leadership Development.  Joel is presently finishing his doctoral studies in Strategic Leadership at Regent University and devotes a great deal of time practicing a lifestyle of faith, fun, learning, and human development; something he expects from others. Joel may be contacted at hoomans_joel@roberts.edu.

Works Cited