Make Yourself Redundant: Why All Effective Leaders Enjoy Vacation

A couple of weeks ago I went on a real vacation. I didn’t bring my computer, I shut off my phone. The only time I even thought about work was when my mind wondered to topics of long term strategy. I didn’t worry about the day-to-day operations at my company even once. Why? I did not need to. I had a strong and capable team that kept everything moving forward in my absence.

Early in my corporate career, a manager leaving on vacation said to me, “Unless my house is burning down, don’t contact me.”

I was shocked by his brazen disinterest in work while he vacationed. “This guy is not going to last long,” I thought. Instead, it was one of the best leadership lessons I ever received. He had a chance to take a well-needed break. His team members had a chance to stretch their leadership, develop confidence, and grow. His actions were signs of an effective leader. But most leaders balk at the idea that a manager-level employee would even think of telling others that they will not be available during their vacation.

Surviving Vacation

In his Forbes article Take A Serious Vacation: A CEO’s Advice To All CEOsJim Moffatt, the chairman and chief executive of Deloitte Consulting LLP, says, “If your business can’t survive your vacation, you’ve got a bigger problem.” He suggests that leaders and managers treat their vacations as a “test” – not just of the leader’s ability to take a break, but of what happens to the organization when they are absent for an extended period of time.

However, the inability to take a vacation isn’t limited to the corner office. A recent study by Kelton Research commissioned by the Radisson hotel chain indicates that nearly half of the total American workforce doesn’t use all of their allotted vacation days. From my experience leading HR functions at mid to large sized companies, I can confirm that the core offenders are managers and leaders. And when asked why this group of hard working professionals left vacation days on the table, most sighted their fear of losing momentum or missing quarterly or annual objectives. In other words, they felt that things would fall apart as soon as they left.

Perhaps these managers and leaders are a product of a workforce that simply has too much on their plate. Kelton’s study did find that heavy workloads were one of the primary reasons workers decided not to take more time off. If this is the case, organizations must ask a critical question – who is taking a break from the day-to-day operations to think about the long-term strategy of the business?

The Problem With Doers

If corporations don’t ask and answer this important question, they may very well find themselves with an organization full of doers and no leaders. While all companies certainly need both, employees need to be able to recognize and respect the difference. An organization full of doers is simply not going to last.

The story of Edwin H. Land and Polaroid is a glaring example of the fate of an organization of doers, brilliant as they may be.  As Polaroid grew, Land had teams of people working in shifts at his side. As one team wore out, the next team rotated in to continue the work. Land was at the core of everything at Polaroid and was even accused of wearing the same clothing for eighteen consecutive days because he refused to take a break. Subsequently, his successors mismanaged the company and the once-great organization headed into a downward spiral. In his 2012 book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Christopher Bonanos tells the story of Polaroid’s competitor Kodak referring to Land’s company as “He” instead of Polaroid. In October 2001, Polaroid declared bankruptcy.

I have worked for both doers and leaders. Despite the hours doers work, I always learned more from the leaders. One of the best leaders I worked for told me that as an HR executive I should be sitting in the lobby greeting employees and reading the paper. This is a bit extreme, but what he was saying is that I needed to spend my time thinking about the big picture – our people strategy to drive our business forward. I shouldn’t be down in the weeds chasing up performance reviews, reviewing improvement plans, or attending every vendor meeting. He encouraged me to build a strong team to do that work.

The other problem with doers is that they frequently don’t lead by example. It is disingenuous when a leader tells me to stop working and take a vacation or recover from an illness, but a week later they show up to work coughing and sneezing. Some doers will boast about not having taken a proper vacation in 10 years. Working for these leaders, I never felt I was allowed to fully unplug despite their encouragement to do so. As with all aspects of effective leadership, walking the talk is the only way to create lasting change.

Making Yourself Redundant

A leader is not doing their followers, boss, or organization any favors by building a team that can’t function without them. They have a duty of care to teach their followers to fish instead of fishing for them. At day’s end, the true test of effective leadership manifests itself when a leader is absent.

The one thing that all effective leaders do is make themselves redundant so they can move on to even greater challenges and help more people – knowing that the team they built will flourish and carry on the mission. All my personal success as a leader has been a result of living this principle. The only boasting I do is about taking all my vacation each year. I encourage you to do the same.

As a leader or manager, here are three simple questions you should ask of yourself daily to ensure you are practicing effective leadership and building sustainable teams and organizations:

1. Can I go on vacation without my computer and phone?

2. If I get sick, can I focus on getting better without working or being in contact?

3. If I quit today, would my team/organization continue to be successful and grow with minimal disruption?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all the above questions, you need to either build a new team, develop the one you have, start trusting your people to work on their own making it okay to fail and learn from mistakes, or move into a role that does not require people management.


Published on Forbes, 29th August 2013.

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