I recently returned from a 90-day stint at the University of North Carolina's Department of Health Policy and Administration in Chapel Hill. This sabbatical has prompted a host of questions about the experience.
The idea for a sabbatical first came in 1974 when I read John Gardner's Self-Renewal. Mr. Gardner theorizes that all individuals periodically need some self-renewal in their lives to stimulate growth.
In 1988, I asked the Orlando Regional Healthcare System's board for permission to take a 90-day sabbatical. On this first chance to get away, I spent my time with the management of Baxter International, and I came back with enough ideas to enhance the effectiveness of my personal leadership as well as contribute ideas worth millions of dollars to our corporation.
Five years later, it was easier to ask the board for permission to take another sabbatical. Many important events were occurring at the time, such as a building program, a visit from the Joint Commission's surveyors and negotiations with several major corporations, but I eventually decided to go ahead with my planned leave of absence. I concluded that in six months there would be another set of factors that would make it just as inconvenient to take a sabbatical.
I decided to take this break mainly because the actions of a chief executive officer carry much symbolic effect in an organization. How CEOs spend their time has tremendous significance. I believe it communicated three important things to my organization:
|The importance of continual learning. I wanted employees to realize that if the president of the enterprise can spend 90 days reading and studying, learning must be important.
|Taking a sabbatical symbolized to the organization the importance of trust. I was confident that our management team would do an outstanding job in my absence. It also was a good for them to be away from me. I believe the function of leadership is to build an organization, not to run it.
|The sabbatical symbolized that I was willing to take a risk. Because I continually ask our employees and medical staff to take risks, it's critical that I do so as well.
I chose to spend time in a strong graduate program on health policy and administration with the intent of reflecting on things that could make a real difference in our corporation by the year 2000. I also taught a course one day a week in leadership and management to graduate students at the University of North Carolina. This gave me an opportunity to read many books and to take daily "mental baths."
I discovered that the biggest benefit to my sabbatical was being awakened to the important things of which I needed to be reminded. One of those things was seeing the purpose of leadership as creating a legacy, not a legend, and that I was in my position as a steward of our people and the organization that had been entrusted to me.
My getaway reminded me that I don't really manage people-I manage ideas. Those in my administration have a good set of human values and integrity, and they are smart enough to manage themselves. Rather, my job is to manage ideas that will make a difference in the organization and ensure that everyone is on the same "sheet of music." That led to the question of what ideas I was bringing that will make a significant difference.
As I looked back on my tenure at Orlando Regional Healthcare System, I found that there were only a handful of significant contributions that really made a difference and that had lasted. This is one of the major benefits of a sabbatical-the chance to be honest with yourself and ask what value you've added. More importantly, you can assess what you've learned and what three or four major things you can do in the next four or five years that will make a significant difference to the organization.
I reflected on great marathon runners who run 26-plus miles and how I, as a leader, am involved in a marathon and not a sprint, and how important it is to have a tremendous amount of stamina and staying power, not just a quick burst of energy. That made me appreciate this opportunity to recharge my batteries.
I saw the reality of an "astronaut mentality." Such travelers in space develop a sense of humility, realizing that the real intelligence is back on the ground with the people who are supporting them and providing the technological and intellectual backbone for a space mission. Similarly, in my organization, the real intelligence is in the minds and hands of employees, and it's my job to harness that intelligence.
Like astronauts, leaders have a unique view and perspective. While I'm not sure I know what vision is, I believe it means that we're expected to keep our eyes and ears open to environmental forces that will have a big impact on the organization or possible changes that we can assimilate only because of our unique view and perspective.
It also was rejuvenating being with an excellent faculty and many fine young people at the University of North Carolina. It forced me to think about things from a different perspective. About 70% of the graduate students were women and represented a future work force that's culturally diverse from the current management staff. The experience prompted me to reflect on the role I might play in ensuring that our organization will have the sort of culture and business climate these future managers deserve.
I came away from the experience believing so strongly in the importance of getting away from an organization that I'm going to offer all of our officers the same opportunity, if only for a couple of months. They would gain much from visiting organizations that are going through tremendous transformations, such as Federal Express or General Electric, or going to a major university to study. I'm convinced they'll be able to make a greater contribution when they come back.