We have identified dozens of CEOs who have what is called “serious leisure” interests. These are hobbies and volunteering gigs that often start at a young age and that individuals continue to invest considerable time and energy into.
Does serious leisure make you a better leader? The few studies that have looked at the job performance of CEOs with strong hobbies show mixed results. For instance, CEOs who are also pilots lead more innovative companies, and CEOs who run marathons show better company performance — but excessive CEO golfing may actually harm shareholder value.
In our research, we set out to investigate why leaders make time for passionate leisure interests in their already impossibly busy schedules — and whether they feel it helps their job performance.
A few common themes stood out about how their passion helps them:
It provides detachment like nothing else can. Many CEOs opined that the complexity of the top job has increased dramatically, with diverse constituencies requiring their attention at any given time, and that they can never stop thinking about it, even in their free time.
This does not help their performance, as research shows excessive stress impairs strategic thinking. Being able to occasionally switch off is essential for stopping that constant background mulling, and simply relaxing on the couch or even spending time with loved ones will not suffice.
Instead, research points to passionate, active leisure pursuits as the only ones that can offer full recovery. As Electronic Arts CEO Andy Wilson has said: “I train a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and you know, when someone’s trying to take your head off, you pretty much can only think about that.” As one of our interviewees, an amateur pilot, put it: “One of the things I like about flying is that, to fly safely, you really don’t have the luxury to think about anything else.”
It means constantly striving for your “best self.” A true nonwork passion will mean a continuous drive to improve yourself, to reach new levels of mastery.
While competitiveness certainly comes up as a motivation, for most of these CEOs it is truly about reaching one’s highest potential, a lesson they’ve transferred to leading. One basketball-loving CEO we interviewed spoke compellingly about how his experience as a player came to the rescue during a very difficult time for the business: “I was taught never to give up. I was taught that you work as hard as you can, as fast as you can, until the coach takes you off the field. So I woke up every morning and thought, ‘The coach hasn’t taken me out yet. So I am going to go do the very best I can.’”
It can provide a welcome humility lesson. Evidence shows that humility at the top can translate into greater engagement all the way to the bottom of the organization and into improved overall performance. Several of the CEOs we spoke with touched on the importance of keeping hubris at bay. As one of them said: “I think it’s always good to do anything that keeps you humble.”
When it comes to their hobbies, corporate leaders don’t have to be the top dog. When Mike Gregoire participates in cycling competitions with his work colleagues, he is not the fastest; his role is that of a domestique (a biking term that means “servant” in French), the team member who helps the better riders succeed, even down to lending them his bike and getting out of the race, if needed.
It offers a “full control” experience. While feeling in control of one’s work is a basic psychological need, it may paradoxically be harder to achieve in the top job. This can take a serious toll on the top leaders’ emotional balance, especially as expectations, from themselves and others, are still that they be in full command. One CEO told us: “I got into [competitive cycling] right after the financial downturn. And a lot of it was, ‘I can control this; I can’t control the world, but I can control how I exercise. And I need some level of control over something.’”
It creates different, deeper connections with your followers. Most CEOs who have a serious leisure interest have found a way to connect it to their followers. Lip-Bu Tan of Cadence participates in an annual company basketball tournament; Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing and Arne Sorenson of Marriott engage in their favorite sports (cycling and running, respectively) with large teams of employees during their visits to company offices around the world.
These activities provide a precious opportunity to solicit honest feedback. Top leaders have a duty to know what is going on in their organizations and what the shared narratives are that shape their company’s cultures. Going for a run with employees or joining a company sports team is a great way to get in touch with people outside of one’s typical circle.
But the CEOs we interviewed did caution about maintaining independence. There is a thin line between communicating openly with a subset of one’s employees and turning them into a clique of favorites who have your ear.
It strengthens your authentic leadership. Authentic leaders develop and consolidate their leadership identity through constructing their life story — how they became who they are. For the vast majority of the CEOs we studied, their passionate interests originated in college or even earlier and are fully integrated into their life stories, because they provide not only a powerful expression of their values but also their strong identities (as Nick Akins has said: “I’m still a rock drummer at heart”).
It may simply make you a better leader. As two of our interviewed CEOs said, “How your mind works and clarity of thought all come along with it” and “It gives me great energy…. I think energy has a big correlation with results and enjoyment and impact.” PayPal’s Dan Schulman has credited practicing martial arts with a host of leadership lessons, from “never standing still” to keeping one’s calm in a crisis to avoiding unnecessary fights with competitors. He’s said, “I’ve learned more about leadership from martial arts than I have from my formal education.” Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, swears by tae kwon do’s ability to improve leadership skills. John Barrett, the chairman of Cardinal Health and a former professional musician, talks about how his passion for music has contributed to his authenticity as a leader and has shaped the way he leads today.
Wondering how you could possibly squeeze some room for serious leisure in between the solid blocks of your calendar? CEOs have, on average, about 2.1 hours a day for “downtime,” meaning everything from simply relaxing to active hobbies, and even this time is probably highly fragmented during the day. The beauty of a passionate nonwork interest is that, in the words of one CEO, “It will force you to find time for it.”