De-Stressing in the Presidential Pressure Cooker

By Jo Allen    //    Volume 26,  Number 2   //    March/April 2018

“I’m tired and I’m going to take the rest of the month off,” jokes an overstressed college president. The catch? The statement is delivered in an empty room at midnight on the last day of the month.

It is no joke that the presidency is a stressful 24/7 job, time off is a rarity, and the demands keep handing us new “to do” lists. Our work is increasingly challenged by enrollment upheavals, technological advancements and encroachments, financial enhancements, security issues, state and federal mandates, alumni relations, and calls for diversity. Add townand- gown relationships, freedom of speech challenges, reputational rankings, athletic oversight, facilities renovations or construction, and the demands of trustees, students, alumni, faculty, staff, unions, and the media, and you get the picture.

We know that time away—mentally and physically—improves our performance, perspective, health, and overall quality of life. As noted in a recent AGB report, The 21st-Century Presidency: A Call to Enterprise Leadership, “At regular intervals, presidents need to take time to refresh and renew their commitment to the work and to reframe their strategies The board should regard … periodic respites as essential supports for effective leadership, not as perquisites or icing on the cake.” Yet the common sentiment— and reality for many—is that we don’t have time to take time off.

There is, however, an alternative. In my last contract renegotiation with my board, we discussed ways the board could give me the time away I need and would actually take. We stumbled upon a solution that made all the sense in the world.

Earlier in the spring, my advancement vice president and I had talked about July being a throw-away month for fundraising. With Independence Day and summer vacations of faculty, staff, and donors, productive work can be piecemeal and wholly unsatisfying. That’s when I decided that in addition to my allotted vacation days, I would ask for the month of July as an annual sabbatical. This time could provide the destressing I sought by allowing time for what I truly wanted to do: write about Meredith College. In my first six years as president, we’d had many accomplishments, such as developing a dynamic threeyear strategic plan, conducting research and marketing studies to create a successful brand, closing in on the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the college’s history, solidifying enrollment and retention, and shoring up our financial position. As happy as I was with our accomplishments, I needed to tell our story. I thought if I could write about these successes, I could de-stress while contributing to the well-being of the college.

Work at the college does not stop for the summer or the president’s time away. And during July, we were attending to summer orientation and enrollment patterns and summer school and camps. Nonetheless, I decided to take advantage of the contracted allocation and try the July sabbatical as an experiment. The results were extraordinary. I wrote almost every day: a scholarly chapter for a colleague’s book, an article on our approach to fundraising, a book proposal, an article on institutional branding, and a chronicle of our success with strategic planning. Not only did I feel reinvigorated by our successes, but I also felt refreshed by chronicling them. At the end of the month, I was ready for the new academic year, starting Aug. 1.

Some presidents may prefer to use the time to capture their ideas for a strategic plan or a new research initiative. Others may want to travel abroad to build collaborative programs. Finding the opportunity for an annual sabbatical not only makes sense, but may even be inspiring.

My board members and I agreed that we could revisit this contractual clause if it wasn’t productive or created more stress for me or the college. Even with an extraordinary executive team and support staff, I added the assurance that I would be reachable by phone or other technology, and able to return to campus within a few hours. I took a couple of phone calls, but otherwise was “off the clock.”

For those with fundraising responsibilities and relatively quiet summer schools, July is a good month to experiment, and I could not be more grateful to my board for letting me try this idea. This year, on June 30, I’m going to pack my computer and take the next month off.