Summertime; making the most of your leadership off-season

In the world of sport, there is always an off-season. A time to vary the pace and type of training, to take a rest, to review the season just gone and look ahead to what comes. Business doesn’t always offer the same clear-cut rhythm, but summertime is perhaps the closest many leaders come to an off-season.
by Jonathan Males

Ironically, summer is also full of high-performance in sport – whether that’s the speed and intensity of a Grand Prix, the concentration and drama at Wimbledon, or the gut-busting pace of the Tour de France.  Yet sustained high performance also requires something very different from full-on focus and effort. Humans are not machines, and we cannot run endlessly at top speed. We also need time to slow down, to re-charge and to re-connect.

Here’s how we recommend leader’s make the most of their off-season:

Move more, and move outdoors

Make the most of the long daylight hours to get outside and get active. Your body was designed to move, not to sit staring at a screen all day. Walk, jog, cycle, swim, dance, climb – anything so long as you’re moving. Test yourself by learning a new physical skill, anything from ballroom dancing to juggling. This is especially important as you get older because your brain and body will most benefit from fresh stimulation. Or dust off the badminton racket or cricket bat from your younger days and remind yourself of the sport you once loved.

Whatever you do, do it outdoors.  When you look out to the horizon your eyes can relax their screen focus and your skin creates Vitamin D from sunlight.  Being in the natural world is good for your health in many ways, as your body produces more positive endorphins and stress levels drop faster than when you exercise in a gym. Being outdoors also creates powerful opportunities for a sense of transcendence, that feeling of awe that comes when you are high in the mountains or by the sea. We humans thrive in nature.

Read, don’t just watch screens

Many leaders struggle to find time to read during a normal working week. Yet reading can be a wonderful source of learning, entertainment and even joy. Research published in Science in 2013 showed that people who read literary fiction showed greater changes in their level of empathy than those who read non-fiction. Author Megan Schmidt explains that “fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world.”

So, choose a novel or two for your summer reading, let yourself be swept away into a different world and know that as a bonus you’ll be a more empathic leader.

Connect with others

In the high pressures of ‘normal’ work and family life it’s all too easy to let personal relationships slip to the bottom of the list, taking for granted those we care for the most. Summertime offers the space to re-set these important relationships. Take a moment to reflect on the important people in your life. How would you rate each of these relationships right now, on a scale of 1 – 10? What can you do to improve the frequency of contact, your openness and availability, or the level of honesty? Does the relationship feel like it’s in balance – are you giving and taking equally? Even taking a small step can make a big difference, so open up a conversation with the people you care about. It’s easier to do this when you have a bit more space and time and are hopefully feeling a little more relaxed than in a normal working week.

and connect with yourself

Remember too that one of your most important relationships is with yourself. It’s not unusual for a leader to find it easier to look after their team (and then their family) than themselves. And there is much to be admired in such selfless behaviour particularly if you contrast it with its opposite, to be selfish and self-centred. Yet these are not disconnected opposites, because the way you look after yourself will influence how well you can look after others, and if you allow yourself to become exhausted, stressed, or ill, then you will fail in your role and ultimately fail your team too.  Use your summer off-season to check in with your own well-being.

Try writing your thoughts down in a journal. The act of writing helps you to create some distance and perspective on your thoughts and feelings. Here are some prompt questions that can help:

  • What do you appreciate and feel grateful for in your life right now?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for the year ahead?
  • What’s causing you frustration?
  • What would you like to change about your life?
  • Think of something you struggled with in the last year. If you step back and zoom out, what is one lesson you have learned from the experience?

Start a timer for 20 minutes and then write whatever comes up, don’t censor or plan, just write. This isn’t an exam or an essay, it’s simply a process to help you learn about yourself. Once the timer goes off, look back at what you’ve written. What surprises you? How do you feel as you read it back?  What’s emerging as important themes or values in your life? Do you want to act on anything you’ve written?

Another way to look after yourself is to give yourself the gift of time. Choose a couple of periods through the summer when you are going to put yourself first and do exactly what you choose to do as a treat for yourself.  If you have a family you will want to negotiate and offer the same opportunities to your partner, so it might be more like “heading off to the cinema to watch Top Gun Maverick” rather than “cashing in life savings and moving to the Caribbean”. The point is to remind yourself what it feels like to put your own needs first, even if only briefly. You may feel guilty, which is a sign that you’ve some work to do to challenge your assumption that a good leader must always put others first. It’s more useful to think about meeting your own AND others’ needs, rather than considering these as a binary ‘either – or’ choice.

Looking ahead

In sport, the off-season is also a time of planning and preparation. You can use your summer to think ahead too, but don’t waste this opportunity by simply rehashing your old ideas and worries.  As a leader, you need to be looking a little further over the horizon than your team. What are the big opportunities and risks for you and your team in the next 3, 6, 12 months? How can you make the most of the opportunities and mitigate the risks?  What small systemic changes can you make that will help your team deliver the basics even more reliably and effectively? How can you share your intentions with your team using a simple game plan that gives clear priorities and tactics?

It’s hard for most leaders to give attention to these questions when they’re in the middle of the daily grind, so make the most of your summer off-season. It’s a time to move more and move in nature. To read and reflect. To (re)connect with the people you love and remember to include yourself in this list. To enjoy life, because as far as we know it’s the only one we get.

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