Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recharge Your Batteries

Summer is almost over. I just returned from a wonderful long weekend with family and friends on a placid little lake in western Connecticut. I came home happy, rested, and ready to go back to work. I am reminded once again of the importance of taking time to recharge one's batteries.

Recently, President Obama and his family spent time at Martha's Vineyard, that scenic and idyllic spot off the southern coast of Cape Cod. When word of the First Family's vacation plans first came out, controversy erupted. How could the chief executive be taking time off when there are so many pressing issues at hand? We need him on duty. America is fighting two wars. The economy is in recession. Workers are unemployed. We are facing crises with the environment and health care. There is so much to do.

I understand how people feel but, politics aside, can't we all agree that our commander-in-chief needs to be healthy, energized, and clear thinking in everything that he does?

Certainly, there is a lot on all of our plates. For many families facing tough economic times, a vacation is not possible right now based on personal finances. But recharging one's batteries is not achieved solely by taking time off in some remote, exotic location. We can refuel the tank every day, in simple ways, by just learning to relax and divert our attention from time to time.

In a recent interview in Harvard Business Review, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin-- who has written several presidential biographies-- was asked about the essential qualities of a great leader. She listed a few, then said, "I would add here that one more success factor is key for great leadership, be it in business or politics, and it's one that's usually overlooked. As a leader you need to know how to relax so that you can replenish your energies for the struggles facing you tomorrow."

Dr. Goodwin went on to say, "Lincoln went to the theater about a hundred times while he was in Washington. And although he suffered from a certain melancholy, he had a tremendous sense of humor and would entertain people long into the night with his stories. Franklin Roosevelt was the same way. He had this cocktail hour every evening during World War Two when you just couldn't talk about the war. He needed to remain free from thinking about the bad things for a few hours. Or he would play with his stamps. This ability to recharge your batteries in the midst of great stress and crisis is crucial for successful leadership."

There are many other historical examples. John Kennedy loved to paint, sail, and play golf. Winston Churchill loved to paint, write books, smoke cigars, and drink scotch whisky. Harry Truman loved to take a brisk walk every day, play poker and drink bourbon whisky (anecdotal evidence aside, there is no solid data that proves that drinking whisky results in success as a leader). The current occupant of the White House is also a poker player, and enjoys golf and basketball.

There is an additional challenge these days in that we are all so intensely, immediately connected and networked that many of us feel we simply can't take time off or the earth will stop spinning without us. Or perhaps we are secretly worried that if we take time to relax we will realize the harsh reality that business, and life, will indeed go on without us. We don't want to find out the awful truth that we are not individually essential to world progress.

Doris Goodwin offers a fascinating perspective on this phenomena. She comments on how in the nineteenth century, busy as leaders were, they took time to pen lengthy letters. She says, "Looking back, the thing that's really impressive is that here were these leaders running the Civil War, and people like [Secretary of State William] Seward still had time to meditate on the day's events and to write these long letters to his wife at night. These were the days of no television. Leaders weren't worried about cable news or their BlackBerrys. They weren't multitasking; they had time to reflect. It's a luxury many leaders just don't have today, and that's a real loss."

When was the last time you truly paused to take a breath and contemplate life? That you read a fun book just to escape? That you exercised or got outside for some fresh air and sunshine? That you noticed nature's awesome beauty? That you enjoyed quality time with your family or friends? That you actually wrote a letter out in longhand and sent it to someone via snail mail? That you pursued a hobby that enables you to become so focused on what you are doing that you are just in the moment for a little while, unaware of the trials and tribulations of the world around you?

If the answer is "not recently," then please take a serious look at what you need to do to arrange your life so that these things can happen for you from time to time. You will be a better person for it and, as a result of that, also a better leader.

In the end, we all occasionally need to take the advice of that famous and wise philosopher, Tommy Bahama, who reminds us, "Relax…"

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