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Learning to unplug: a valuable leadership skill

Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author. His online course on Udemy is The Manager’s Mindset and his book is “The Type B Manager.” He has more than 20 years of Fortune 500 management experience. He contributes regularly to Forbes and Psychology Today, and his work has appeared in Harvard Business Review.

We sometimes tend to think we’re not effective leaders if we’re not working constantly. Checking emails and texts at crazy hours of the morning and night. Communicating relentlessly with staff, as if it’s a badge of honor to be wired in 24/7, always working, always connected, always on.

While work ethic and diligence are certainly desirable managerial attributes, there also comes a point where constant work wears you down and burns you out. It also sends an implicit message to your employees that it’s never good to relax—which just adds to their stress levels and can burn them out too.  

I recently read a thoughtful piece in Harvard Business Review titled You Can Be a Great Leader and Also Have a Life Its message: You don’t have to be an Elon Musk who rarely sleeps or a Mark Cuban who took no vacation for seven years. You can, as the article puts it, “challenge the notion that work-life balance is impossible.” The article examines the working style of several high-powered executives who’ve made conscious decisions to unplug, work more flexibly, spend more time with family, and generally try to cultivate a more balanced existence.

The no-vacation nation

Data shows we’re not a culture that easily takes a break. More to the point, we’re in danger of becoming “the no-vacation nation.” A study last year showed that 47% of Americans didn’t take all of their vacation time—and 21% left more than five days on the table. In the aggregate, this is not a portrait of relaxation.

I’ve known employees whose pet peeve was the steady stream of communiques emanating from vacationing bosses. This frustration flows in two directions: Dollars to doughnuts, if you’re receiving lots of messages when your boss is on vacation, you’ll probably also be receiving plenty when you’re on vacation. It’s highly stressful for employees who are trying to unwind and disconnect to be drawn back into the drama and sheer busy-ness of work when they’re taking time off.

A sustainable approach

During my decades in management, I worked for senior executives who were adamant about their direct reports taking all of their vacation time since they felt it was psychologically beneficial. Then there were other, equally senior execs who viewed employees’ vacations akin to root canals—a necessary evil to be endured.

There’s no question in my mind which is the preferable approach. Successful management needs to be a sustainable endeavor. It needs to work day after day, month after month, and year after year. Leaders who learn how to unplug—and convey that expectation to their employees as well—will likely be rewarded by appreciation and loyalty. They’ll also enjoy a less stressful life themselves.

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Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author.

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