Emilia Bunea
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Becoming a better leader is hard work. But what if part of the road to better leadership didn’t go through work at all? What if instead part of it went through leisure? This is a blues band in San Jose, California, called Legally Blue. They’ve been playing together for nine years. Their lead guitar is a gentleman by the name of Aart de Geus. Aart played with several bands before, first in his native Switzerland and later in the States, where he also, as he puts it, 'works for a living'. More specifically, he is chairman and CEO of Synopsys, a 17-billion-dollar public company. Synopsys reported strong results last year, even as Aart and Legally Blue had a busy show agenda, sometimes performing several weekends in a row. Why does he do it? This is me in my much smaller CEO role. This is me in one of my better marathons. Am I a great runner? Well, for comparison, the gentleman on my right, I only caught up with him at km 38. Although, I don’t know if you can see it, he is balancing a pot of flowers on his head. (Laughter) Still, by my own standards, I am an amazing marathon runner, and striving to get even better at it. Why do it, instead of sticking with a sensible fitness regime? One obvious answer, both for Aart de Geus and for me, is passion. In research terms, we have a case of 'serious leisure'. A leisure interest is serious when you invest substantial time and resources in it, when you strive to become amazing at it - by your own standards - and most importantly, when you identify with it. You will tell, maybe others but definitely yourself, 'I am a marathon runner,' 'I am a blues guitarist.' But something else happened after I took up serious running that made me suspect that this question, 'Why do it?' may also have another answer, that there may be a connection between serious leisure and leadership. As my mileage grew, so did my creativity, my self-worth, and the connection I had with my team. So later on, when I became a leadership researcher, I decided to give serious leisure a serious look. Career coaches had been recommending hobbies before as a leadership "booster," but there was hardly any research to substantiate their claims. With my new colleagues at VU University in Amsterdam, we said, let’s start at the very top, with the CEOs of America’s largest public companies, those included in the S&P 500 Index. Are there some among them who have a non-work passion? And if yes, what does it mean for their leadership? We combed through thousands of articles, interviews, commencement addresses, social media posts. We found that more than one in ten of S&P 500 CEOs do have a serious leisure interest. And they sometimes achieve an impressive level in it, even by absolute standards. Completing Ironman events, [Leo Denault, Entergy] [BillDemchan, PNC Financial] getting top places in triathlons, [George Barrett, Cardinal Health] singing at a professional level, [Sean Healey, AMG] winning a worldwide fishing competition, [David Solomon, Goldman Sachs] performing as a DJ in some of New York’s hippest clubs. (Laughter) And the list goes on. Not all of these CEOs reach such amazing achievements in their serious leisure, but they are all passionate about it, and they all give it their best. Now, the opportunity cost of these CEOs’ time is among the highest in the corporate world. Is passion enough to justify it? We found several other answers through our thematic analysis. Serious leisure creates deeper connections with their followers. It fuels their creativity and focuses their strategic thinking. It feeds into their authenticity. It informs their leadership style. Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq and a black belt in Taekwondo, says it develops self-reliance, which she finds crucial for good leadership. But besides these direct benefits, there was also another less intuitive theme in how CEOs spoke about their serious leisure. Almost like an affirmation of independence from their leader role. For instance, how much they enjoy getting out of their CEO skin through their non-work passion. Nick Akins of American Electric Power, loves it that, when he’s playing with his band, he is no longer the CEO but, in his words, 'sort of the hired help'. And Mike Gregoire of CA Technologies says, 'When you're on the bike, nobody knows you're a CEO. You'll have plumbers and hedge fund guys out there trying to kill you.' (Laughter) Also, how they appreciate that their serious leisure forces their mind off work. In the words of Electronic Arts CEO, Andy Wilson, a brown belt in Brasilian Jiu-Jitsu, 'When someone’s trying to take your head off, you pretty much can only think about that. And that helps you switch off.' There were even mentions of alternative careers. For example, the official bio of Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen states, 'If Shantanu were not at Adobe, he would be a professional golfer.' And Jeff Jones of H&R Block sees himself, at some point in the future, as a fashion photographer. [Jeff Jones, H&R Block] What intrigued us about this different theme in how CEOs spoke about their serious leisure was that it leaned away from rather than towards their leader role. We had to explore it further. So I conducted private research interviews with over 20 CEOs of major corporations. The majority of them S&P 500 or Fortune 500 ones. All of them with many thousands of employees. As I progressed through the private interviews, the list of direct benefits was confirmed and grew longer. Self-confidence, humility, generosity, wisdom. But that undertone of leaning away from one’s leader role through one’s serious leisure was also there. And as the CEOs showed a more vulnerable side of themselves in our talk, it started taking shape - something like this: 'The leader role is so intense, I feel it could swallow me completely. To balance it, I need another high performing "me". So I go and strive for my best at something completely different from work, instead of just plopping down on the sofa. It gives me another leg to stand on.' That’s when it all fell into place. For involved leaders, serious leisure is indeed another leg to stand on. And that connects to a concept psychologists call 'self-complexity'. Each of us have one 'self' composed of several identities, like 'leader', 'husband', 'cat lover' ... And the more identities, unrelated to each other we have, the more complex our 'self' is. What research says is that adding an identity independent from the ones you already have is good for you, provided that you have positive associations with it - you enjoy it, you perform well in it, you are proud of it - and that you have it under control instead of it controlling you. In other words, provided it increases what we can call 'positive self-complexity'. Why is positive self-complexity especially interesting for leadership? Because chances are, sooner or later, our leader identity will come under threat. Many of the CEOs I spoke with confessed to struggling with the requirements of the top job. One S&P 500 CEO told me he slept very, very poorly - his words - because there were so many constituencies. Wall Street, the board, shareholders, governments, communities, employees, customers ... And dealing with each of them could be a full-time job. Another S&P 500 CEO talked to me about how he had gotten into competitive cycling at a very difficult time at work. And he said, 'I thought: "I can control this! I cannot control the world, but I can control how I exercise, and I need some level of control over something."' So top leaders do battle with huge complexity in their work and will sometimes not feel in full control of it. Will they go through moments of doubt about their leader ability when that happens? Probably. And these are experienced, battle-scarred leaders, whom research typically views as overly self-confident. When you speak with or coach newer, less experienced leaders, it is clear that self-doubt visits them much more frequently. A healthy dose of self-doubt is what we need if we are to learn and grow, but it becomes dangerous if we have invested all our time and energy and purpose in the leader identity. Yet, that’s exactly what many of our stakeholders want from us. But let’s face it, people want the impossible from their leaders. Research calls this 'the romance of leadership'. People want their leaders to be living and breathing their work. But at the same time, they want them to be fascinating individuals with rich inner lives that can only come from deep and diverse interests. They want their leaders to work themselves to exhaustion, but they also want them to be energetic and creative and inspiring. What happens then, when we doubt ourselves, when maybe we feel guilty for not living up to these expectations of our many stakeholders? We punish ourselves with more work. We put in still longer hours and sleep even worse. We develop tunnel vision and, paradoxically, we end up throwing out the window all the good leadership, everything we’ve learned about at work and in executive education programs, about allowing our employees to flourish, inspiring and challenging them. Because, frankly, we are just too exhausted to focus on anything other than 'getting things done'. Poor us! But poor people we are supposed to lead. I know because I was there. I panicked when I found myself questioning my leader identity, because I had staked everything on it. It was who I was. That’s where my serious leisure came to the rescue. In hindsight, it fulfilled all the requirements of positive self-complexity. It was not connected to my job, I performed well in it, and I had it under control, meaning I decided if, when and how much to engage in it. And the added self-complexity meant not only that I became calmer and more balanced, but as I took a step back, I reminded myself what I was really there for, to empower my team, to succeed through their success. So, positive self-complexity essentially gives us 'another leg to stand on'. But that’s not all. Research also found positive self-complexity may be especially valuable to leaders of today, for a different reason. Up until a few decades ago, senior leaders could safely rely on their experience because the past was a reasonable predictor of the future. Today, leaders routinely face events that don’t fit the pattern. Take Mark Bertolini of Aetna, a mindfulness enthusiast who said, 'Every day I head out into a chaotic world, where I know I will be challenged about my own worth.' What research shows is that positive self-complexity equips leaders with self-views and skills different from those honed on the job that they can use to address these unfamiliar challenges. This doesn’t happen consciously. If I’m called on to show leadership in a novel situation, I’m probably not going to step onto a soapbox and say, 'Everybody calm down, I’m a blues guitarist, I got this!' But I may be able to recruit skills I didn’t even know would come in handy. Maybe an exceptional listening skill. I’ve learned from a CEO whose passion is music that there are many, many layers of listening to a song, beyond what the lay person hears as an amalgam of sound. These skills are probably not among the top 10 you’d find in the leadership manual. They live in the realm of the surprising, the lateral thinking, the 'where did this come from?' Somewhere in the back of my mind, the fact that I can be good at something so refreshingly different from my work will make see myself as someone creative, quick to react, alive, and I may come at the challenge from a very different angle. You may think, 'Great! Now I also have to be an outstanding artist or athlete to be a good leader. Thanks for easing the pressure.' You do not 'have to' anything. As a matter of fact, research on the nature of passion says that if you feel pressured into taking up a hobby, the magical cave that holds all the treasures promised by serious leisure will not open for you. Conversely, if you are passionate about a hobby but less so about your work, maybe you find yourself daydreaming about a hole-in-one in the middle of an important strategy session, then the leader role is just not for you, and your serious leisure will only make that clearer. The magic of serious leisure will only work for you if you are both passionate about the hobby and passionate about the leader role. And passion outside of work does not subtract from passion for work. So, where does that leave us? After Harvard Business Review published our findings on their website, readers in management positions reached out to say they had restarted hobbies they had previously abandoned because of work, and they were glad they did so. If you do have a serious leisure interest, do not sacrifice it because you think your leadership role demands it. For dedicated leaders, serious leisure is an investment in their leadership. And, if you don’t have a non-work passion, let me ask you. Is there an activity that made you think, even if it was a long time ago, 'I could be so good at this if I put in the effort!' If yes, give it a try as serious leisure. Do not feel guilty for striving for excellence at something other than work. Who are you? An expressive dancer? An inspired dressmaker? A cook? An athlete? A writer? Find your passion. As long as you are firmly committed to the leadership role, this passion will make you a better leader, a more complex one, which is what we need in this ever-more complicated world. Because we need complexity inside to manage the complexity outside. Thank you. (Applause)