In 2018, Michael E Porter and Nitin Nohira spent three months tracking the activities of 27 CEOs to understand how they spend their time. Unsurprisingly, they found that a CEO’s job is all-consuming. The average CEO works 9.7 hours per day, as well as working on 79% of weekend days, and 70% of vacation days. That means the average CEO gets to have a little more than two completely work-free days each month. There’s not much time for family, or friends. And there’s almost no time for the cultivation of broader interests, like visiting museums and galleries, or – for example – learning to play the ukulele.
This lack of time for cultural development seems a shame, and not just from the perspective of having well-rounded leaders. For one thing, it’s turning work into an illness. According to a 2013 study of senior managers by executive development firm Arielle Executive, about half of the study participants believed their CEO was burned out. And it seems the stress gets shared: 75% of senior managers were considered to be burned out and a staggering 79% of front-line staff. As a result, absenteeism has become a huge preoccupation for HR professionals. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, there was a total of 2.8 thousand days missed among the 113,154 full-time wage and salary employees found in the US in 2017. And according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 40% of those missed days are likely to be related to mental health-related issues.
Even for those leaders who manage to cling to their sanity, this lack of opportunities for cultural appreciation seems like a lost opportunity. Art and culture have the ability to cultivate well-rounded leaders and to improve the quality of the businesses they lead. The study of CEOs’ time echoes a view expressed by American novelist Ursula K Le Guin: ‘The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.’ This seems particularly true of the modern-day CEO.
What makes a great leader? Open-mindedness. Curiosity. The ability to communicate complex ideas with elegance. The vision to identify possibilities that others miss. These are qualities we should look for in our leaders. But they are qualities that a CEO racing against time is unlikely to cultivate. The median tenure for CEOs at S&P 500 companies is five years – it’s no wonder they work such relentless hours.
So what happens if you want to lead a business for more than five years? What if you see leadership as a marathon and not a sprint? Which role models should we seek to emulate?
Warren Buffett certainly presents an interesting case.
Admittedly, his day does get off to a pretty early start – he wakes at 6:45. But he doesn’t hit the gym or begin firing off emails to far-flung corners of his empire. Instead, he reads a few newspapers. On his way into work, he stops at McDonald’s, where his choice of breakfast is determined by how ‘prosperous’ he’s feeling that day (let’s be honest with ourselves here – it would be pretty terrific to get to a point in life where you can happily contemplate your degree of emotional prosperity before breakfast). Buffett goes to work because he wants to – not because he has to – and sometimes turns up after the markets have opened. When he’s at the office, he estimates he spends 80 per cent of his time reading – and recommends 500 pages a day. Some days he treats someone to lunch at McDonald’s. And then after he finishes work, he likes to relax by playing bridge or practising his ukulele. And he makes sure he gets a full eight hours’ sleep. By my estimation, Warren Buffett only spends about two or three hours a day on what most of us would call ‘actual work’, yet he’s run a huge and monstrously complex S&P 500 company for over half a century – and become immensely well-read in the process
Perhaps he followed the advice set out by Bertrand Russell in his essay on ‘How to Grow Old’: ‘Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.’ This seems like pretty decent guidance for anybody who wants to maintain a long and healthy working life into old age: the more experienced you get, the more important it becomes to acquire a broad range of interests. Doing so will give you perpetually new perspectives on work, more profound insights about the world and will make you far more positive role model for the next generation of workaholics.