Can Leaders Take a Break?

amelia earhartDo we have to go off to an island with limited access to the internet to get some quiet? Is it ever okay to put a “do not disturb” sign on the office door? Can we ever admit we are fried, exhausted, done, and not be judged as lacking in mojo, courage, stamina?

These were some of the thoughts I had after spending a remarkable day presenting at Purdue University in Indiana. Purdue is known for its bright engineers, top flight technology students, it is the alma mater of the first and last men to walk on the moon. It is also the alma mater of Amelia Earhart who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Earhart is a model for so many women who have broken the mold with their can do attitude.

Yet, the question as I talked with women in the Purdue leadership program is still the age old one of how to balance it all; career, family, community, and time for oneself. I spent time talking about the patterns of behavior that have been handed from generation to generation.

Two of the key patterns that seem to fall into the laps of women are the pleaser and the martyr. For eons women have been taught to be the force behind the man, not make waves, and get with the program. Then with the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan there was a groundswell of change. Women began to question their “dutiful place” and the adventure of exploring new territories in the workplace beckoned with bright lights and sirens of possibility.

Now, fifty years later we have made headway on all fronts. There are female pilots, women in the military, as CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies, everywhere and anywhere that calls to talent and skill.

And yet; there is still a sense of exhaustion I hear from women leaders. There is a lack of entitlement about taking that needed break. There is the sense that unless everything is in place and both work and home are tended perfectly it is not okay to stop and think about oneself.

The revolution for women to be able to fulfill oneself is good and right. The fact that women still think they are responsible for making sure everyone is happy and hearty before they can take care of themselves is the next wave of the revolution in partnership with our male colleagues that needs attention.

Especially during this holiday season when the images of sugar plums still remain in the psyche we need to think about when it is time to say “no” or “you do it, I’m going to take a bath” or “enough already”.

One of the concepts we discussed at Purdue was the fact that when stress hits the hot button we all tend to revert to patterns learned in our original organization, the family. This is when the patterns generations old of being a pleaser or martyr show up. In the following video you can get a sense of why it is so hard to change behavior.

We have done it over and over and now is the time to take charge by giving responsibility to others so we can have that moment of relaxation that is so needed. Give yourself the gift of a day away to do whatever you love and please, no guilt!

Sylvia Lafair

Sylvia Lafair, PhD, is President of CEO – Creative Energy Options, Inc., a global consulting company focused on optimizing workplace relationships through her exclusive PatternAware™ Leadership Model. Dr. Lafair is the author of Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success published by Jossey-Bass. As an executive coach and leadership educator, she has more than 30 years of experience with all levels of management from leading corporate officers of global companies to executives of non-profits and owners of leading family-owned businesses. She is now offering GUTSY Women Weekends, giving women the opportunity to dialogue and clarify next steps.

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  1. Jen Gresham says

    Interesting post. I see the same thing among my colleagues, men and women alike. The issue, as you point out, is that women revert to damaging stereotypes under stress than men are not as prone to.

    But is there a video? I can’t see one.

  2. Linda C Smith says

    This is an interesting article and interesting that this topic would come up with female leaders at Purdue. I’ve noticed that male leaders take time off. They don’t ask, they don’t feel guilty, they just do it. I know of the CEO of a company who takes Fridays off during winter as “personal ski days.” He doesn’t ask, he just does. Female leaders need to recognize that taking time off is part and parcel of taking proper care of themselves. A burned out leader is useless.