Do less to achieve more

by Craig Dearden-Phillips 21/09/2017

Did you have a good holiday? I hope so because research with  30 successful third sector chief executives for my forthcoming book How to Change the World: The Essential Guide to Social Sector Leadership, contained a very powerful and possibly surprising message.

This was the strong correlation between a chief executives’ willingness to take proper time out and their capacity to successfully lead. Time out in this context points to three distinct things.

First, it means frequent holidays, which includes taking at least one long holiday each year and going properly away – not staying at home where it’s just to easy to get sucked back in. 

According to one chief executive of a well-known charity, regular holidays to off-the-track places, often travelling alone, gives him the space for reflection and renewal that helps him lead during challenging times for his organisation.   

Breaks spent in quite different environments also means he finds it easier to see the organisation “from the outside, looking in -  which brings helpful perspective that is easily lost in the muck-and-bullets of organisational life”. 

Second, top-performing chief executives understand the need to switch off, take full weekends and not work too late into the evenings. 

This means switching off email at these times so that they’re not contactable, except in an emergency. 


One well-known boss uses the social media app WhatsApp to be contacted in a crisis, meaning her work email can be turned off during downtime.  

This, she told me, “works brilliantly” and keeps her down-time truly hers, leaving her fresh for work the next day.   

For CEOs with kids, time in the evenings and weekend given over to them, without distraction, helps not only their performance but the feeling of guilt many leaders feel at how much of their headspace the job can take up.

Third, nearly all the high-performing chief executives I spoke to use mindfulness techniques such as meditation or intensive exercise to create some psychological distance from work for at least some of each day.   

One boss of a £60m social enterprise told me he finds time to meditate for 20 minutes both in the morning and evening.  

Another CEO I spoke to is a top marathon runner, despite being in his late 50s. 

Does this sound like hard work or too much of a time-commitment?  

The benefits of proper R&R, I kept being told by CEOs, far exceed the costs involved.  “If you want longevity in the job and impact then you have to constantly renew your energy” one told me.   

 It is clear that taking these three steps helps to manage the anxiety that comes with senior leadership.  “Being a chief exec can mean sleepless nights and constant mental churn, if you're not really careful,” one third sector leader told me. 

In his case, a daily mindfulness session, at dawn each day, was key to liberating his mind from obsessing over work.

Should these findings have been a surprise?  To some, I suspect they might be, especially chief executives of an earlier, more workaholic generation.

As a former 70-hour week chief executive myself , it took me aback  in a good way to see just how seriously this new generation of leaders take their own well-being. 

But I wasn't totally surprised. Today's top chief executives seem to be aware that achieving top performance relies on that vital relationship between rest and recovery.

The evidence base around this first began in sports science.  Studies from the 1980s onward showed that athletes who built in rest days between hard training sessions performed much better than those who ‘over-trained’.   

Top sports coaches surmised that in order for athletes to improve their performance and maintain it, they need to judiciously mix activity with recovery. 

Both matter equally. Take the recovery out and the athlete regresses.  Just like the workaholic chief executive who grinds themselves into the ground with 70 hour weeks. 

What my own less scientific research among chief executives in our sector suggests is that if you want to build the stamina and resilience to perform at the top level, you should plan meaningful rest with the same zeal that you plan your activities.

You need to build rest in and do it every day. The ingredients of successful chief executive leadership in today’s sector - resilience, influencing skills, judgment and clear-thinking - are sharpened by rest and recovery.  

Conversely it is now well understood that tiredness and overwork erode all these things, often with calamitous consequences.    

The era of the workaholic CEO is hopefully drawing to a welcome close.

So as you start packing away your summer clothes and start thinking ahead, the best advice, based on my research on our sector's high performers, is to schedule in rest and relaxation into your daily routine. 

And start planning your next holiday now!

Craig Dearden-Phillips (@deardenphillips) is chair of Social Club, a business club for social sector leaders

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