To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 28th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Now that summer vacation is over, the peer-to-peer learning circle that I facilitate is back in action. September was catch-up time on what has happened since we last met.  With the exception of one person, my first group started with everyone admitting that s/he was exhausted and overwhelmed.  Nothing I haven’t heard before, but not generally right after the summer break.

Granted, summer is not what it used to be—everyone seems to be in agreement on that:  it flies by, the pace no longer slows, the traffic doesn’t lessen, etc., but there still is a degree of slow-down with fewer phonecalls, emails and calls for instantaneous assistance.

The question is whether you take advantage of that downtime.  Apparently, the folks in this circle did not. TomTom’s June survey found that 61% of Americans were planning on a summer escape in 2012; HomeAway’s summer travel survey reported that 70% of Americans believe that even a short getaway with friends and family is important—particularly in these tough economic times.   Apparently, the executive directors in my group are among the 30% to 39% who don’t believe in the power or importance of summer slow downs.  They may even be among the 57% of Americans who do not take all of their allotted vacation days.  Really?  Are you that irreplaceable?

When explored, these exhausted executive directors admitted that the sources of the exhaustion were, for the most part, all good.  But if you are going to come through summer, a time when, clearly, the majority of people intentionally slow down for some period, however brief or extended, exhausted, what does that bode for the future?

This phenomenon actually worries me greatly, for a number of reasons.  First, we simply cannot perform our best if we are exhausted.  Whether the super folks amongst us like to admit that or not, that is the truth.  Second, executive directors, senior managers, etc.,  must model a healthy work-life balance, the need to recharge, the reality that organizations and programs can survive—at least for short times—without “the boss,” and more.  Third, executive directors must cut their jobs down to being “doable” or we will never find replacements.  And, fourth, there is something wrong with an organization or the leaders of that organization if people cannot take vacations, whether that be a self-imposed “cannot,” or worse, an organizational “suggestion.”

Let’s focus on the something wrong.  What is it that could be wrong?

  • The executive director/senior manager is a control freak (a phrase way too many executive directors use to describe themselves, and that is scary); s/he cannot delegate, hovers over others, needs final say and approval, etc.  In essence, s/he trusts no one to do things as well as s/he does.  Solution?
    • Hire well; easy as that.  If you don’t trust the people you have hired to do the work at the level that you expect, you probably didn’t hire well.  Fire and re-hire.
    • It is the end product that matters, not how the person got there.  One of the things that drives people nuts who work for a control freak is that the CF doesn’t just want to control the end results, s/he wants to control the process that gets to the end result.  You can’t have everything!  Just ask your navigation system:  more often than not, there are multiples ways to get to the same end destination.  Some like the direct route, others the scenic; some like to save money on tolls, while others like to save money on gas.  Isn’t it  the end that matters, not how you got there.
    • Communicate thoroughly and clearly.  If you don’t clearly delineate  expectations before a project begins, upon hire, before a new undertaking, etc., how is it possible for the worker to know what is expected?  By failing to articulate that shared vision for the end product, you are ensuring your continued need to be a CF because “no one will do it right.”   By failing to articulate that shared vision, you also get to continue to wear your hair shirt.   By failing to articulate that shared vision, you never really empower anyone else.
    • Be willing to take a calculated risk.  If you have hired well, communicated clearly and are content to worry only about the end result, then be willing to take that risk that things will go well—or not.  If you have never made a mistake in your life, then this risk thing will make no sense.  But if you are like most of us, you’ve made a mistake, learned from it, done your best to correct it and/or make amends for it, and worked hard never to have that mistake happen again.  Be willing to risk that those who work for you will make a mistake, the individual will grow and the organization will recover.
    • The organization/board/executive director/all of the above doesn’t know how to say no.  Or, what must go?
      • Budget your time.  Be as serious about budgeting your time as you are about budgeting the organization’s finances.  The nice thing about finances is that we can, albeit it with some work, expand our financial base.  No one has yet invented a way to expand our time base:  no matter who you are, how great you are, how great the work is that you do, etc., there are only 24 hours in a day.  And no one person is meant to work 24 hours a day.  Period.
      • Yes, dear, it is a zero sum pie.  One person, one organization is truly limited to what it can accomplish based on the resources it has available.  Before saying, “Yes, we can do that,” say “What will we get rid of in order to be able to do this new thing?” Or say, “Where will the money come from to hire the person who will be responsible for doing the new thing?”A recent study from David Rand, a Harvard research scientist and lecturer, found that what we decide is influenced by whether we respond quickly or after consideration.  Specifically, he found that quick decisions tend to be more selfless, while decisions that are considered tend to be more selfish.  So, before responding immediately to the new idea proposed by a board member, ponder, reflect, delay!  Otherwise, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself saying that selfless statement, “Of course I can do that.”  No, you can’t unless something else goes.
      • We are not made of elastic.  Neither organizations nor people are meant to keep on expanding and expanding.  We must be aware of the limits of both, and respect those limits.  Thus, something new comes in, something old must go.  There are a 1.2 million to 1.4 million nonprofits in this country; there certainly is some other organization in your community that could do what you cannot do, be it something new you are choosing not to take up or something old that you are discarding.  Learn to respect the limits.We are not lesser people because we need to relax and recharge, to take time off and away.  We are not lesser people because we delegate, allow people to make mistakes, risk things not being perfect—whatever the heck that means, let go of old things.  We are not lesser people for doing all those things; in fact, we most likely are saner people.

There are many variations of this statement and many attributions of authorship, but I believe the original belongs to Krishnamurti:  “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  It is certainly an unhealthy society that does not respect human limits and prizes exhaustion in our leaders.

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