When Goldman Sachs named David Solomon its new CEO, the media didn’t just focus on his professional background and his rise through the ranks; it also covered his moonlighting as a bona fide DJ.
Solomon, aka DJ D-Sol, is known for his mantra of finding passion at, and outside of, work — and he’s not an isolated case. We have identified dozens of S&P 500 CEOs who have what we call “serious leisure” interests. These are hobbies and volunteering gigs that often start at a young age and that individuals continue to invest considerable time and energy into.
Does serious leisure make you a better leader? The few studies that have looked at the job performance of CEOs with strong hobbies show mixed results. For instance, CEOs who are also pilots lead more innovative companies, and CEOs who run marathons show better company performance — but excessive CEO golfing may actually harm shareholder value.
In our research, we set out to investigate why leaders make time for passionate leisure interests in their already impossibly busy schedules — and whether they feel it helps their job performance. We searched for public information on the hobbies of CEOs whose companies were in the S&P 500 index at the start of 2018. Our search yielded 56 CEOs for whom a serious leisure interest is known. For each of them, we scoured thousands of articles, videos, and social media posts about them and their interests. This helped us build a rich picture about how they and others connect their hobbies to their leadership.
To validate and enrich our findings from public sources, one of us (Emilia, a former CEO herself) conducted private interviews with 17 CEOs of S&P 500, Fortune 500, and similarly sized U.S. companies, asking about their hobbies — and if they had a serious leisure activity, what it meant to them and their ability to lead.
In public and in private, CEOs state that their leisure interests help them cope with the ever-increasing demands of the top job. They typically invest considerable time in their leisure, and even block off time far in advance to protect it from “life taking over,” as one interviewee said.
A few common themes stood out about how their passion helps them:
It provides detachment like nothing else can. Many CEOs opined that the complexity of the top job has increased dramatically, with diverse constituencies requiring their attention at any given time, and that they can never stop thinking about it, even in their free time. One of the CEOs we’ve interviewed sighed: “Sometimes work can really be…all-encompassing. You can never let go when sleeping and eating and being present with your friends and family.”
This does not help their performance, as research shows: Excessive stress impairs strategic thinking, and it leads to increased aggression and reduced ability to engage in positive leadership behaviors. Being able to occasionally switch off is essential for stopping that constant background mulling, and simply relaxing on the couch or even spending time with loved ones will not suffice.
Instead, research points to passionate, active leisure pursuits as the only ones that can offer full recovery. As Electronic Arts CEO Andy Wilson has said: “I train a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and you know, when someone’s trying to take your head off, you pretty much can only think about that.”
But, as long as it is a true passion, you don’t need to go this far to truly disconnect: Tou can get completely absorbed by collecting stickers and hand-making elaborate cards, like Dentsply Sirona’s ex-CEO, Mark Thierer, or by playing guitar in a band, like Cardinal’s chairman George Barrett. As one of our interviewees, an amateur pilot, put it: “One of the things I like about flying is that, to fly safely, you really don’t have the luxury to think about anything else.”
It means constantly striving for your “best self.” A true nonwork passion will mean a continuous drive to improve yourself, to reach new levels of mastery. Many of the “serious leisurites” in our sample have conquered impressive heights by objective standards: Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, led his squash team to the gold medal in the Maccabiah games in his first year as CEO. Mike Gregoire, of CA, and Rick Wallace, of KLA Tencor, both avid cyclists, completed such fearsome races as the Leadville 100 and the “Death Ride.” Entergy’s Leo Denault has brought home four Ironman medals. Bill Demchak, CEO of PNC Bank, placed 36th in his age group at the 2016 USA Triathlon championship. AMG’s Sean Healey won the White Marlin Open by catching a 93.5-pound marlin after a protracted wrestling match that cost his boat an engine.
While competitiveness certainly comes up as a motivation, for most of these CEOs it is truly about reaching one’s highest potential, a lesson they’ve transferred to leading. One basketball-loving CEO we interviewed spoke compellingly about how his experience as a player came to the rescue during a very difficult time for the business: “I was taught never to give up. I was taught that you work as hard as you can, as fast as you can, until the coach takes you off the field. So I woke up every morning and thought, ‘The coach hasn’t taken me out yet. So I am going to go do the very best I can.’”
It can provide a welcome humility lesson. The higher the leaders, the more necessary the occasional reminder that they are still mere mortals. Evidence shows that humility at the top can translate into greater engagement all the way to the bottom of the organization and into improved overall performance. Several of the CEOs we spoke with touched on the importance of keeping hubris at bay. As one of them said: “I think it’s always good to do anything that keeps you humble.”
When it comes to their hobbies, corporate leaders don’t have to be the top dog. When Mike Gregoire participates in cycling competitions with his work colleagues, he is not the fastest; his role is that of a domestique (a biking term that means “servant” in French), the team member who helps the better riders succeed, even down to lending them his bike and getting out of the race, if needed. As CEO of American Electric Power Nick Akins said about playing drums at a charity event, “As a CEO you’re constantly…in the public eye, and in that event, we were just sort of the hired help!”
It offers a “full control” experience. CEOs used to be seen as all-powerful leaders who could singlehandedly change the direction and fate of their companies. But increasingly intricate governance systems, the stronger influence wielded by shareholders, and the rapid pace of change and disruption all conspire to make the CEO’s “control panel” wobblier than before. While feeling in control of one’s work is a basic psychological need, it may paradoxically be harder to achieve in the top job. This can take a serious toll on the top leaders’ emotional balance, especially as expectations, from themselves and others, are still that they be in full command. One CEO told us: “I got into [competitive cycling] right after the financial downturn. And a lot of it was, ‘I can control this; I can’t control the world, but I can control how I exercise. And I need some level of control over something.’”
It creates different, deeper connections with your followers. Most CEOs who have a serious leisure interest have found a way to connect it to their followers. Lip-Bu Tan of Cadence participates in an annual company basketball tournament; Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing and Arne Sorenson of Marriott engage in their favorite sports (cycling and running, respectively) with large teams of employees during their visits to company offices around the world.
These activities provide a precious opportunity to solicit honest feedback. Top leaders have a duty to know what is going on in their organizations and what the shared narratives are that shape their company’s cultures. However, they often struggle to do so, as information is filtered and embellished during its flow through established, hierarchical channels. Going for a run with employees or joining a company sports team is a great way to get in touch with people outside of one’s typical circle.
But the CEOs we interviewed did caution about maintaining independence. There is a thin line between communicating openly with a subset of one’s employees and turning them into a clique of favorites who have your ear.
It strengthens your authentic leadership. Authentic leaders develop and consolidate their leadership identity through constructing their life story — how they became who they are. For the vast majority of the S&P 500 CEOs we studied, their passionate interests originated in college or even earlier and are fully integrated into their life stories, because they provide not only a powerful expression of their values but also their strong identities (as Nick Akins has said: “I’m still a rock drummer at heart”).
It may simply make you a better leader. As two of our interviewed CEOs said, “How your mind works and clarity of thought all come along with it” and “It gives me great energy…. I think energy has a big correlation with results and enjoyment and impact.” PayPal’s Dan Schulman has credited practicing martial arts with a host of leadership lessons, from “never standing still” to keeping one’s calm in a crisis to avoiding unnecessary fights with competitors. He’s said, “I’ve learned more about leadership from martial arts than I have from my formal education.” Adena Friedman, CEO of Nasdaq, swears by tae kwon do’s ability to improve leadership skills. John Barrett, the chairman of Cardinal Health and a former professional musician, talks about how his passion for music has contributed to his authenticity as a leader and has shaped the way he leads today.
Wondering how you could possibly squeeze some room for serious leisure in between the solid blocks of your calendar? A recent HBR article showed that CEOs have, on average, about 2.1 hours a day for “downtime,” meaning everything from simply relaxing to active hobbies, and even this time is probably highly fragmented during the day. The beauty of a passionate nonwork interest is that, in the words of one CEO, “It will force you to find time for it.”