The summer holiday as a tool for leadership development

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 10 September 2014

All this chat about David Cameron having to run the country from his blackberry while shuffling about on Cornish beach trying to get a signal is intriguing. The general media is reinforcing the message that leaders should take no time off, always be on, etc. All this while all the research on what makes good leadership suggests that leaders should take breaks and should take time to properly relax and recharge the batteries. 

In fact, the opportunity a holiday presents is vastly under-used. In a similar way to how moving house has the bonus of giving you a chance to clear out clutter and rubbish, taking a holiday forces you to take steps to ensure that others can hold the fort in your absence. 

So in our work with clients coming on our leadership development programmes we invite them to take a mini-break away from the office. By delegating key responsibilities to their team members and not interfering too much, they allow them to step up and get an experience of running the show. Many years ago when reporting directly to a chief exec of a large professional services firm who travelled a lot, I was terrified when he didn’t respond to an urgent request for a decision I had sent to him. He completely ignored my email. When he came back he said he hadn’t responded to it because he knew that we would keep things ticking over in his absence and make the right decisions. He had no intention of responding to us on such matters. It was really helpful learning, and it certainly made me take my role and responsibilities much more seriously.

It is a perfect chance for deputies to step up, to experience what holding the reins actually feels like.  On my holiday I found myself teaching several family members to sail. Some were reluctant to hold the tiller, so I would start by just asking them to hold it when we were on a steady course while I sorted out some knot or cleat for a second or two. After that, they were much more willing to hold it for longer and some even progressed quickly to turning a tack or a gybe. In the same way, a holiday or other break gives us a chance to hand over responsibility for a short while. Having no decent mobile signal can be a blessing!

I’m a big fan of the situational leadership model when it comes to thinking about what and how to delegate. This means we look at the person we are delegating to, and the type of task we are delegating and think about how much support they need versus how much direction. Those new in role need lots of direction. But as the novelty wears off, the need for support, particularly encouragement and positive feedback and reinforcement starts to increase. After a while, a point of conscious competence is reached at which the amount of direction can drop off, and the support becomes more about developmental feedback – what can be improved and enhanced. Eventually, we reach the stage at which we can just give a simple delegation request, and our team member has reached a stage of unconscious competence in that task. 

So what can you do to ensure you can leave your blackberry in its box during your next holiday?

  • Constantly build the confidence and capability of your team – work your way out of your job
  • Identify everything likely to require attention in your absence and who will be responsible for each 
  • Brief those who will be acting in your absence and be clear about what their role is – they can probably do more than you think
  • Crucially, let them get on with it
  • When you come back, appreciate where people have used their initiative and made decisions, even if these weren’t perfect.

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA

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