October 22, 2021

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Leadership is knowing when to vacate the sunlounger

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Life can be a beach for a leader. The price of a high salary, a corner office or political power is that you can never be entirely off-duty. There are emails to read, calls that must still be taken and occasionally a genuine crisis to pull you from your sunlounger.

As Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is discovering, correctly judging the moment to put down your piña colada is a required political skill. As the Taliban advanced on Kabul last weekend, Raab was rather too reluctant to return to the mundanities of office life and military defeat. Not only did he delay his return until Sunday night, he is accused of refusing to make a key phone call to his opposite number in Kabul to secure the safety of Afghan interpreters. He delegated the call to a junior minister but it never took place. Raab says the reality was different.

His boss Boris Johnson also headed off on holiday the day before Kabul fell, though only in the UK. Johnson has form in this area. As Mayor of London he was late returning from holiday during the capital’s worst riots for decades.

No one can begrudge a leader a break, especially after the strains of the past year, and modern communications both facilitate a getaway as well as ensuring it is never total. If the past year has shown anything, it is that as long as there are secure communications there is no reason not to work from a Cretan swimming pool or a Cornish campsite.

It is also true that many events that provoke knee-jerk demands to cancel a break can reasonably be left to a good deputy and a couple of phone calls. 

But politicians, and business leaders, do have to know the importance of optics and the galvanising impact of a return to the office. This concept should not be alien to a UK government that has spent much time exhorting workers to return to city centres. 

This is not a purely British problem. Australia’s Scott Morrison was slow to return from a family holiday in Hawaii as bush fires ravaged the country, disastrously defending his decision with the words, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” 

Nor is it only a political concern. Company bosses have fallen into the same trap. Presenteeism, of course, is no panacea. BP’s Tony Hayward was quick to the scene of the Deepwater Horizon disaster but then undermined it by telling a TV crew, “I’d like my life back” and taking a break on his yacht. His position might have become untenable regardless but he made himself an easier target.

Judging what classifies as a crisis demanding your return is tricky, although a shrewd analyst might consider the utter collapse of a central foreign policy objective to tick most of the boxes. Someone able to get to the top of a major organisation ought to know what constitutes a holiday-breaking incident, but here are three quick pointers for those struggling to figure out the boundaries. 

One: people in your bailiwick are dying or have died in large numbers. The juxtaposition of that and pictures of poolside bars will damage the image of any leader.

Two: a crisis or natural disaster which is desperately blighting the lives of citizens may not be solved by your presence but a quick visit to show you care might avert a lot of pain later.

Three: a crisis which could fatally undermine your business or your leadership were you present will not have a more benign outcome because you are absent. 

No one doubts this is difficult and sometimes pointlessly performative, but it comes with the territory. Those leaders deemed to place too high a premium on their own downtime may soon find they have rather more of it than they wish.

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