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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.

The challenging state of the economy has put enormous pressure on many leaders, their businesses and their employees. While opportunities are definitely on the table, leaders need to be creative, diligent and resourceful to stay ahead of the competition. This means longer hours, more stress and a constant need to be innovative.

The result? Leaders are tired – not just from working longer hours but because their brains are being used to the max. Finding some mental down time, aside from sleeping, can be challenging. Maybe it's time to hit reset.

While many of us focus on physical improvements this time of year, why not consider a mental cleanse too?

Too many of us think we are indispensable, particularly entrepreneurs. A successful business is one that can thrive without you for the short and the long term. But we don't act that way. In fact, according to a recent survey by, more than 60 per cent of us check e-mail or voice-mail while we are vacationing.

I'm not just advocating using vacation time, but for an occasional extended absence. Some would call this a sabbatical, but I like to call it a mental cleanse. Minimum time? One month, but two is ideal. And I am also calling for a total disconnect – no work contact whatsoever, except in well-defined emergencies.

I can hear you gasping. That's what my colleagues did when I starting taking a yearly month-long break, in addition to regular vacations, several years ago. In fact, most of them said it was impossible. And then I took two months. No work e-mails, no talking to clients, no checking up on employees. More shock and awe. No way would they ever attempt it. No way would the "powers that be" allow it.

Well, they were wrong. The one-month sabbatical was the perfect test for the longer break. It made me feel more comfortable, gave my leadership team time to "test their legs" and for me to assess their skills.

Some guidelines

1. Start "practising" what it will be like to be away – delegate some of your responsibilities, let others fill in for you at meetings and presentations, share financial benchmarks with senior management.

2. Set the specific parameters of when your staff should get in touch with you and trust them to do it. For me, it surrounded major legal issues involving my company or our clients.

3. Disconnect. Totally. Take yourself off the intercompany e-mail list. Put a message on your phone and e-mail stating that you are away and who to contact in your absence.

4. Contact your key customers before you leave and explain what you are doing. Do not try to hide it. They might be jealous, but they will wholeheartedly support you.

5. Provide your key associates with your emergency contact information, as well as a list of staff that they should contact for specific issues. I did this for all of our clients. I never received one phone call in the two months I was away.

6. Do a mental cleanse. Just like a physical one. Clear your mind of all work-related information and issues. This will take at least a week. Find other interests to fill your time and occupy your brain – read those biographies you've been trying to get to; try team activities that require some strategic thinking; find a place that has no Internet or cell access.

7. Stay clear of work for at least another three weeks. Relax, have fun.

8. Warm up for your return to work just a few days in advance. Start with the big picture issues. Now that your mind is clear of the minutia, what are your dreams and long-term goals for your company, your department, your career? Design your perfect job and think about how you might get there. Set some high-level goals, but don't make a long list.

The benefits

The benefits are numerous for you and your firm, beyond clearing out the cobwebs. If you are an entrepreneur, the head of a company or a department, it will give you a taste of what succession will be like and identify the up-and-coming leaders. It may also weed out some weak players and push others to be as good, if not better, than you are. It will make your company stronger.

A mental cleanse will teach you to step away from the day-to-day and let you focus on what is most important as a leader – the strategic direction of your business. And it can help you get rid of some bad habits (like checking e-mail every two minutes) and create some new ones that will set the stage for a healthy and happy work life.

Now all you have to do is pick a date.

Pat McNamara (@patapex) is chief executive officer of Toronto-based Apex Public Relations Inc. (@apexpr)