Whatever you call the leader of a group of people — CEO, executive director, president, lead pastor, mayor — they have a hard job that’s tough to do in a sustainable fashion. By sustainable leadership, I mean doing the job while preserving the positive attributes that likely got them into their position: positivity, insight, creativity, care, openness, integrity, endurance, etc. I know I started losing some of what made me a good leader after 18 years of founding and running Atomic Object.
A young CEO friend of mine recently shared an interesting idea. She suggested that term limits for these kinds of jobs might be a smart policy. That’s because the work can be so draining and discouraging that it’s not in anyone’s interest for a single person to carry the burden for too long.
I think we do have longevity limits on these jobs; it’s just that those limits are sometimes reached by people hitting a crisis point. Leaders burn out, destroy their health through self-medication, do something bad and get kicked out, get bitter and walk away, withdraw and bide their time, or give up and sell their company to the highest bidder. Of course, not every leader ends up in a bad place, so some people have figured out ways to make these jobs more sustainable.
My Introduction to a Sustainable Leadership Routine
Talking with a very successful, recently-retired pastor friend of mine revealed an answer to the sustainability question that completely validates the problem and the need. It also points to a more flexible solution than term limits and a better outcome than a crisis. The practices he adopted that helped him serve for 34 years were organized around regular events at recurring time scales:
- Meditation and prayer every morning
- A few contemplative hours in a quiet place every week
- A day-long silent retreat once a month
- A week spent in review, reflection, and planning every year
All of these practices he does solo. In other words, your annual strategic planning session and your Friday executive team meetings don’t fit his pattern. While his practices are informed by his faith, I don’t think they are dependent on them.
Adopting his practices takes incredible discipline. There’s always more work to be done, more fires to put out, more opportunities to pursue, more unhappy people to help. Time is by far our most precious commodity. In the short term, there’s always something more urgent than self-care. But in the long-term, if these practices keep you able to hold your leadership job healthily and effectively, these practices are a good investment. Given that executive capacity and leadership are almost always the bottlenecks for company survival and growth, the return on such time from a company or shareholder perspective is probably huge.
Adopting My Own Sustainable Practices
I didn’t learn of my friend’s practices until I had stepped out of the CEO job. But since I made the transition to executive chairman two years ago, I have developed a few practices of my own that keep me centered, calm, happy, and effective while I work for the various organizations I’m committed to.
Until a year ago, I held what seems to be the common view of the sabbath. It must be on Sunday. There are rules about what you can and cannot do. God will judge you harshly if you don’t follow them. Until I became a Christian a little less than four years ago, I didn’t care about the judgment part. I laughed at the silly rules, and I felt irritated when I couldn’t buy beer on Sunday.
What I learned about sabbath from my first pastor was quite different from the widely-held stereotype. Sabbath is a gift. It doesn’t have to be on Sunday. It’s a rest from your work. It’s a time to stop and tell yourself that you put in a hard week of work, that work was good, and now you’re going to set it down for a day and rest. It’s a time to stop and appreciate what you have. It’s a way of returning to your work refreshed and re-energized. It’s an investment in the quality of your work and your ability to do it indefinitely.
In other words, the sabbath is all about a sustainable pace.
For those of you who don’t recognize that term, sustainable pace (originally called “40-hour week”) is one of the original 12 practices of Extreme Programming. We built a company that respects sustainable pace in an industry that tends toward mandatory overtime, all-nighters, and fixed salaries. It’s one of the things about Atomic I’m most proud of.
(There is a uniquely Christian aspect to the sabbath, which I also enjoy discussing. Feel free to reach out if you’re interested.)
Overtime can be the destroyer of a sustainable pace. The pragmatic implementation of a sustainable pace recognizes that, despite your efforts to plan responsibly, sometimes there’s a need to work extra. It shouldn’t happen often, but when it does, you’ll be able to handle it if, most of the time, you’re operating at a sustainable pace. Similarly, there will be weeks when you have to sacrifice some or even all of your sabbath, but you should never let that happen two weeks in a row.
I enjoy taking my sabbath on Sunday. I find that a morning church service and sharing lunch with my wife afterward is the perfect kickoff of my Sabbath Sunday. But sometimes, it’s convenient to take it on Saturday. I follow the rules my pastor friend suggested: I relax, I eat, and I drink good things; I spend time with people I love; I read whatever draws my attention; I take long dog walks. In the summer, I sometimes sail. I don’t work. I don’t read the news. I often don’t even open my laptop.
The second practice is about transition and perspective.
I ease back into the workweek with intentionally slow Mondays. I have meetings and I do work, but I try to keep the schedule reasonable. And I do something every Monday that intentionally slows me down: I fast. My fast usually consists of skipping breakfast and lunch. Sometimes I skip dinner too, but the social connection with my wife over dinner is hard to resist.
I think and move more slowly on Mondays, I suppose, from a lack of readily burnable carbohydrates. By thinking slower, I don’t mean dumber — I mean more thoughtfully. My reactions are slower, and I’m a little more patient. I walk more slowly. I’m more likely to fill the interstitial moments of the day with intentional breathing, meditation, or prayer instead of email or to-dos.
I have hunger pangs now and then during the day. Those remind me of the many things in life I take for granted. My life is so rich and privileged, and I appreciate being reminded of that regularly. It’s a symbolic, self-induced shortage or suffering that contrasts with my usual circumstances.
I feel strangely empowered by knowing that I don’t have to eat three meals every day. It tells me that I could survive in much less ideal circumstances than those I’m used to. I feel less reliant on a pretty strong convention of the western lifestyle. It makes me appreciate the flexibility of my body.
Some people claim that intermittent fasting is good for your health. Friends that I respect tell me that fasting is an important religious practice. I don’t disagree with either view, but I’d still fast to slow down Mondays, even if neither was true.
A Worthy Problem
A lack of sustainability in leadership jobs is a worthy problem to solve. All organizational stakeholders would benefit. My practices, like my friend’s disciplined schedule, might not work for everyone. I hope they inspire you to find your own practices or inspire you to encourage the people you mentor or direct to find theirs.
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- How I Misunderstood Mentorship and Benefited Anyway - June 16, 2021
- Sabbath Sundays and Slow Mondays - June 4, 2021