Should Leaders Go on Vacation?

When former auto executive Lee Iaccoca titled a book, "Where Have All the Leaders Gone?" he was decrying the sorry state of leadership, not asking about particular places. Currently, the question is more literal and immediate: Where have all the leaders gone on vacation? And when economies are in meltdown, and the vacation places are Tuscany, the Riviera, and Martha's Vineyard, another question is: Should be they be going at all?

If Nero fiddles while Rome burns, it doesn't matter that Nero was entitled to a little vacation to pursue his hobbies.

There's been a lot of talk about the reinvention of work in the twenty-first century, but little guidance for the reinvention of vacations. As a big believer in vacations, I think it's about time we become clear on dos and don'ts for leaders in turbulent times.

President Obama is not the only one having to decide whether to cut or modify vacation plans at a challenging moment. Volatility creates similar situations for CEOs, small business owners, and professionals of all stripes. Here are five questions for leaders in any field to ponder as they vacation without vacating their responsibilities.

What is the vacation narrative?

The rationale for vacations should be specific, not simply an unthinking matter of cultural tradition. Some observers argue that Europeans take too much vacation, while Americans and Japanese don't take enough. The "right" amount has been the result of bargaining, without a rationale that makes it clear why vacations are important, not just another entitlement. Is there a connection between vacations and creativity, vacations and health? I think so. Pauses refresh. Everyone needs down-time to renew, reenergize, and re-bond with family. Time away while accumulating new experiences can stimulate imagination and support innovation. In short, making the link between time off and time on can be broadly beneficial.

What is the vacation timing?

Context matters. What else is going on in the world? Is this the right moment to be away from the nerve center, even if the leader can take staff or work part of the time? The capitals of Europe empty out in August, traditionally because of the weather, but financial markets don't take a holiday, air-conditioning has eliminated the August rationale, and growth countries south of the equator, notably Brazil, keep on with their productive winter pace. Even if a vacation is a very good thing, adjusting the timing increases responsiveness at critical moments and shows that leaders are aware and alert. Sacrificing a few days of vacation when crises loom is a gesture that shows that leaders can be trusted to take their responsibilities seriously.

What is the rest of the team doing?

In quiet times when clients, customers, and constituencies are mostly away themselves, and subordinates are also taking vacation time, it's easier for leaders to enjoy vacations without intrusion. But if leaders take off and leave the work for others to do, resentments build up, no matter how much a particular manager thinks he or she has left clear instructions. And sometimes people are forced to work through vacation time whether they want to or not, while the boss is off partying (true story). If anyone is working, it should be the leader.

Are there continuity, backup, and contingency plans?

In challenging times when crises loom, people tend to panic if there is no one clearly at the helm. And as the old saying goes, when the cat is away, the mice will play. Even in quiet times, there's a chance for mischief or missteps if leaders leave a vacuum, with no one clearly in charge and lack of clarity about how to operate. Over-communication is better than simply disappearing. Leaders should make very clear exactly what they expect to have happen and how. And when in key roles, they should also reassure everyone else that they can be reached and will return if need be.

What is the vacation symbolism?

The things that leaders choose to do on vacation are an important part of the message they send and one way that their constituencies read their character. Consistency with values is important. That's why politicians who say they want to protect the environment, for example, are better off hiking through national forests than drinking on the sundecks of yachts with foreign lobbyists. If a leader is urging austerity or trying to get a new labor contract, then indulging in obvious luxuries is clearly the wrong thing at the wrong time. Leaders don't have the luxury of a sharp boundary between their public actions and their private lives. Leaders are always on. Sometime their botches come from times they think they're off duty, as happened when we saw the photos of Senator John Kerry windsurfing near Nantucket, which was one of the images that might have cost him the 2004 Presidential election.

Going off to have fun can be hard work. But a little forethought can go a long way. So instead of getting sand in your smartphone by trying to multi-task on the beach, use the time to reflect on how to reinvent vacations for a global mobile era.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.