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Your Sabbatical Can be Healthy for Your Whole Organization

What if your sabbatical is not just about you?

Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

An often overlooked player in the sabbatical equation deserves significant attention: the organization that will carry on while you are gone. I’m not just talking about how to set things up so that everything works well in your absence, I am talking about how your organization can take big leaps forward while you are out of the picture.

Of course, if you are insecure and secretly hope everything falls flat while you’re away as proof of how valuable you are… Well, this article isn’t for you.

A healthy sabbatical offers an organization--not just a leader--powerful opportunities to take new ground.

Among those opportunities, it creates a chance to see things with fresh eyes, to clarify ambiguities and assumptions that have developed, to review key systems and structures, and to invest in your leadership bench. Unfortunately, very few organizations seize these opportunities. Most hunker down into survival mindset: “How do we get through this, without losing ground.”

Whether you are the one taking a sabbatical or you represent the leadership team guiding the ship back home, fight the temptation to “put life on hold.” Be courageous and go after the unique advantages embedded in this season.

I am not suggesting that you go after some organizational overhaul. But, I do believe this is the perfect time to consider two aspects of organizational life that consistently grow murky over time: (1.) Intentional development of new leaders; and (2.) Clarity and effectiveness of your operational systems.

Develop New Leaders

A funny thing happens along the journey of ordinary life, people and organizations become overly dependent on their leader. You probably felt it when the notion of a sabbatical first came up. The most common reaction to the idea of a sabbatical is fear. Fear that we can’t manage without our leader.

A sabbatical is a chance to break that logjam of dependency on a single leader and discover the capacity of other leaders waiting in the wings.

Leaders don’t surface when they aren’t needed and they aren’t formed in a vacuum. Leaders are formed in the crucible of real life. They develop through the experience of leading. I would lay odds that sitting in the wings are men and women with tremendous gifts that need to be developed.

Therefore, carpe diem. Embrace this sabbatical as a time to develop other leaders. Build a bigger leadership engine by investing in and entrusting new leaders during this season. Because the sabbatical is temporary it brings with it a great freedom to experiment.

Practical Steps for Leader Development During a Sabbatical:

Rather than simply replacing one solo leader with another, distribute key responsibilities among multiple people. Divide the big pieces of leadership responsibility that need to be covered into smaller chunks and share those among other staff or volunteers.

Think in specifics and give people clear assignments and the authority to carry them out. Communicate these different assignments to your constituents and your governing bodies. Create peer partnerships for support and problem solving. Then, spend those final weeks before the sabbatical starts mentoring and coaching them for the task.

Review Your Systems

Over time, the normal current of any organization flows from explicit clarity and concrete understanding toward ambiguity and assumptions. Things get done because good people of good will dive in and make it happen, but the pathways of good decision making and problem solving are hard to explain.

The role of organizational leaders gets fuzzy, too. At times they jump in to fill a void only to find that everyone assumes they will continue doing so. During a personnel shift—whether staff or volunteer—they pick up any slack so that the organization doesn’t suffer. One way or another, drift happens.

To that end, a sabbatical creates an opportunity to review, adjust, and clarify your organizational systems on a grand scale. Not only will questions like these help you prepare to cover all your bases during a leader’s absence, they might reveal some areas of operational effectiveness that deserve attention.

  • Who is responsible for our major programs?

  • How are major decisions made and by whom? What decisions or approvals need to float to Board level?

  • How are different kinds of problems solved and by whom?

  • Who's responsible for communication and how does it happen—among staff, with volunteers, with governing boards/supervisors, and with constituents?

  • Who has authority to spend money and within what guidelines?

  • How and by whom are personnel supported, encouraged, and managed?

  • How does short and long range planning take place?

  • And, in everything, “Is this the way we want things to be done?”

If you will let it, a sabbatical can create a break from, “the way we always do things.” And, because it is a relatively short season, it is also a temporary window to try new things. Experiment with different ways of handling any of the issues raised by the questions above. If your new approach doesn’t work, the end of the sabbatical is like a get out of jail free pass. You can restore any of the old normals you’d like.

The Empowerment Essential:

A direct word for the leader taking the sabbatical.

For this season to be healthy for your organization and for the development of your people, you must take your hands off of the steering wheel. Give those who lead during your absence the authority to do so according to their best wisdom. Be specific about handing off this level of empowerment and letting others know you have done so.

Simply put, trust your people.

Charge them to make decisions, solve problems, put plans in place, and when needed, do things in a way that might be different than what you would do. Be direct, they are not to put life on hold. They are not to tread water. They are to lead the way forward in your absence.

If you have any boundaries, any specific “Do” or “Don’t Do” guidelines, share those explicitly. Avoid any expectation of mind-reading—they should just know.

Above all, grant them the freedom to act or even to fail in exercising their best wisdom. They need to know that you will not be upset if they make a different decision than you might have. On the other hand, you will be upset if they postpone a decision because they didn’t know what you would have wanted or were afraid of what you might think.

If you are going to empower your team, you need to prepare yourself to adapt to the results of any decisions they made in your absence. Their way might not be your way, but it might be better.

Empower and trust your people and your sabbatical might be the best thing you could do for your whole organization.

About this Sabbatical Series

This is the fifth of a 5-part series about preparing for a healthy sabbatical. Links to the other articles are included below.

If you are interested, I am creating a Sabbatical Field Guide that expands on these articles. It should be ready in 6-8 weeks. Subscribe to my blog and you’ll be notified when it is complete.

Links to the Whole Series:


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