The Mental Retreat

By Stephen T. Messenger

August 17, 2021

I’ll admit, I felt a little guilty sitting by the water doing nothing. It was my third week of vacation between job assignments, and I’ve been relatively unproductive for a number of days. The kids and I were in the water more often than not and having a great time at my parents’ house.  For a moment, I forgot about my career, my college program, running, and even writing weekly Maximum Standard articles altogether. But I had mixed emotions about it.

Leaders always keep moving. At least that’s what I was taught from the early beginnings of my Army career. Great officers have a lot of tasks on their plate, they know how to prioritize, and they get stuff done. I’ve lived this for over two decades and never really mastered the art of recharging my batteries. I rarely took vacation and when I did, I was tethered to a phone and email.

Many bosses speak of the benefits of time off but rarely take it themselves. I fear I’ve become one of those. I’m very supportive of time off for others, but my actions certainly haven’t matched my words.

In a seminal Harvard Business Journal article from 1996, “When Executives Burn Out,” Harry Levinson talks about the dangers of fizzling leadership. He compares it to a slow burn where significant burdens are placed on great leaders over a long period of time.  At this pace, leaders who passionately care and work relentlessly for the good of the organization are at risk to burn out.

Levinson cited emotional warning signs include fatigue, anger, self-criticism, negativity, and short fuses. Behaviors could be withdrawal, absenteeism, aggressive venting, or isolation. However, I believe there is a more subtle sign to early burnout that I’ve experienced over two decades.

Frustration. Most leaders are in jobs we love; if we’re not, we need to find another profession. When leadership starts to become more frustrating than fulfilling, this is a warning we need a break.

As a cadet in college, I remember practicing patrolling techniques on a weekend for hours on end. Eventually, we were physically exhausted and mentally drained exhibiting most of the aforementioned warning signs of burnout to include frustration.

Our instructor pulled us off the patrol and said we needed a “mental retreat,” and he placed each of us against a tree with our eyes closed for about ten minutes. At the time I thought it was strange, but looking back, I see the immense benefits.

Mental retreats allow the mind and body to recharge and refocus on tasks at hand. This break mentally shifts activities back from frustrating to fulfilling. I know I’ve failed to take mental retreats in the past, whether it be ten minutes against a tree, ten hours off work, or ten days on vacation. Levinson states that burnout “can, does, and will happen.”  Some simple things to do are:

– Take Vacation! Companies provide it for a reason, and leaders have to sometimes kick people out the door to recharge and come back better. And yes, this applies to you (me) as well.

– Rotate Assignments. Exhausting positions exhaust people. It is easy to break the workhorses of the organization that do the lion’s share of work. They need rest too.

– Go Home. There will always be more tasks than time available. Anyone can work late into the night, every night. Leaders have to prioritize tasks and make time for personal lives for all employees, including themselves.

Thank People. Nothing says you value your team like thanking them early and often. People need to hear leaders appreciate hard work and diligent effort. Verbalize the pride in your employees—it is there so let them know

– Work Efficiently. An efficiency auditor observing an organization I once worked in said he watched a team produce reports that, at the end of the day and unbeknownst to them, were obsolete upon submission. He further said that he thought one of the employees figured this out because he didn’t do anything all day!  Actively performing useless tasks does not replace results. Make sure your team is doing things right, not just doing things that don’t matter.

– Have Fun. It’s not enough to enjoy your job. Your team needs to enjoy it as well. While you can’t control people’s emotions and state of mind, leaders can do things to create an enjoyable atmosphere, such as birthday and milestone celebrations, recognition, games, and offsites.

I needed a couple weeks of mental retreat before I started my new position. I felt recharged, energized, and motivated as I walked in the door ready to lead more of America’s best and brightest.

Everyone will experience warning signs of burnout throughout the course of their career and personal life. The key is to manage it over varying periods of time. Planning those small moments against a tree along with the large vacations that you’ll remember long into retirement will make all the difference.

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