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Leisure and work

03 Feb 2023 / Wellbeing Print

Can leisure make us better?

In a world of billable hours and never-ending to-do lists, where does leisure fit in? Dr Michelle Hammond sends us a postcard.

A surprising number of business leaders are quite serious about their leisure. Dan Schulman (PayPal), Adena Friedman (Nasdaq), and Joris Merks-Benjaminsen (ex-Google) all build confidence and strength through martial arts. George Barrett (former CEO of Cardinal Health and a singer-songwriter) credits his daily play for making him “happy and whole” as a leader.

But ‘serious’ leisure pursuits are not only for the business elite. An article on Legal Cheek highlights lawyers with interesting, serious, leisure passions. Olivia Potts describes herself as a “barrister by day, baker by night”. Marcus Rutherford (partner at Enyo Law) is serious about mycology – the study of mushrooms. Simon Allen (head of personal injury at Russell Jones & Walker) is a passionate photographer.

Why do these leaders do it? In my research collaborations with Dr Emilia Bunea (former CEO and marathon runner) and Prof Ronit Kark, we examine how serious leisure affects leadership.

Top leaders take their hobbies and volunteering seriously as ways to strive for being their best selves, connect with followers, and build ‘authenticity’. Leisure may provide opportunities to bring more fun and passion to life – but also better performance, creativity, stress relief, and connection.


Leadership occurs beyond the office. Leisure activities themselves may be oppor-tunities to hold leadership positions as captain, coach, or conductor, which may serve to reaffirm the strength of leader identities and allow leaders to try out new behaviours.

Serious leisure promotes values that are often associated with leadership, such as discipline, self-improve-ment, self-awareness, goal setting, working as a team, and perseverance through adversity – skills that directly translate into work.

In an interview with the BBC, black-belt Adena Friedman says: “Taekwondo is a great discipline for my body and mind. It has impressed upon me the idea that success is in my control. I know that I can get hit, and it’s not the worst thing in the world. I just need to decide to get back up and keep fighting.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Schulman went as far as to say: “I’ve learned more about leadership from martial arts than I have from my formal education.”

Serious leisure activities that promote physical fitness may also provide energy and stamina to face long days or high-pressure situations. While I was a lecturer at the University of Limerick, I had the honour to partner with Munster Rugby as they launched their High-Performance Leadership Programme.

At the world-class Munster training facility, business leaders began to take a ‘whole-person’ look at their leadership – being their best physically and emotionally to have the energy to lead.

Although much less physically demanding, Warren Buffet agrees about the lessons he has learned in bridge, telling CBS News: “You have to look at all the facts. You have to draw inferences from what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard.

You have to discard improper theories about what the hand had as more evidence comes in sometimes. You have to be open to a possible change of course if you get new information. You have to work with a partner, particularly on defence.” These lessons are rich in most serious leisure pursuits.


Some serious leisure activities directly involve creativity – such as crafting, music, and the arts. Even activities outside of the arts can prompt creativity at work. Creativity is based on divergent thinking, in which generating a variety of ideas and alternative solutions to problems is the goal rather than a single correct solution.

This type of thinking thrives when we have access to different types of experiences, ideas, and approaches. Getting out of the office and doing something completely different can encourage divergent thinking.

Furthermore, many people suggest that their greatest ideas occur when they are not actively thinking about them. Engaging in healthy serious leisure can provide both needed time away from problems and a new way of approaching them. Arguably, creativity at work is growing increasingly important as we face new levels of change and uncertainty.

Wellbeing and recovery

Athletics and creative pursuits are great stress relievers. Serious leisure can afford a different type of detachment and recovery than relaxing at the spa or on the couch.

Most of us have dedicated relaxation time that we end up spending preoccupied with work issues. The result can leave us feeling unproductive, not rested, and guilty for wasting our time.

The cognitive or physical energy required to engage in serious leisure often demands full focus, thereby eliminating the ability to think about work. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Meet the Press: “It’s not exactly relaxing when you’re struggling to play Brahms. But when you’re playing, there is only room for Brahms or Shostakovich. It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it.”

As leadership roles can be described as all-encompassing, having this truly off-work time is indeed a treasure. The fulfilment that serious leisure activities bring can at times compensate for bad days or moments when a leader’s own needs are not met. As the expression goes, ‘it’s lonely at the top’. Engaging in a fulfilling hobby or hitting the gym can help replenish the proverbial cup.

Managing stress is vital for leaders. When leaders are feeling stressed and their needs are not met, they are more likely to make rash decisions, fail to manage their emotions, and negatively affect culture.

As leaders’ worst behaviours are often associated with experiencing stress and burnout, the detachment and recovery afforded by serious leisure are good for workplace relationships and good for business.

Identity and authenticity

For many who pursue a serious leisure activity, their involvement began long before their careers. These leaders might have stated “I’m an athlete” long before stating “I’m a business leader”. It is a strong part of how they see themselves. Engaging in sport or the arts can ground a leader in who they are as a person – not just a leader.

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!” – before also saying, “I’m still a rock drummer at heart.” Making time for leisure provides freedom for self-expression that may be considered taboo at work.

Unlike other parts of ourselves, leisure identities can remain hidden if so chosen. Those who chose to reveal their leisure pursuits may find it combines with their professional identity to form a new uniqueness. Lauren Cohen of Harvard Business School is known as the ‘Powerlifting Professor’.

Similarly, CEO of Signet Jewelers Gina Drosos (volunteer basketball coach and a former star college basketball player) is known to use basketball metaphors in her leadership and approach to gender equity.

The additional strong identities associated with serious leisure provide a buffer to negative events. Greater self-complexity – having more aspects to yourself that are not related to each other – is associated with being able to bounce back from setbacks and failures.

For example, consider how two people may be affected after a loss to the whims of the court: someone who sees herself as a successful lawyer, mother, wife, and beekeeper, compared with someone whose identity is grounded in work alone. When we make work our whole life, a hit at work can take a toll.

Connection and passion

We tend to find people who engage in leisure activities more interesting than those with fewer dimensions. Leaders tend to be more effective when others admire and want to identify with them.

Admiration for qualities associated with leisure activities, and personal interest in someone who has a full personal life, can lead to more engaged followers.

Alternatively, when a leader reveals non-work aspects of themselves, it may help to humanise the leader, bringing them down from their pedestal and increasing approachability. David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who DJs under the stage name ‘DJ-Sol’, believes this to be true: “As a business professional, it’s also connected me to a lot of the younger people that I work with. I think it makes me more accessible to them.”

One of the defining features of serious leisure is passion. Passion for a leisure activity prompts investment in it. However, passion isn’t always advantageous. The benefits of serious leisure depend on the type of passion experienced. Harmonious passion is based on free choice and stems from one’s own desires.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, can not only reduce the likelihood of the benefits of leisure, but even bring about negative outcomes more directly, such as feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety or inability to say ‘no’. Leisure activities should stem from personal choice and interest, rather than guilt or anxiety, and one in which the individual feels free to stop.

Obsessive passion represents an unhealthy relationship with leisure and can have negative consequences for leaders, their teams, and their companies. For example, the companies of CEOs who play the most rounds of golf annually reported lower firm performance.

Do you have a serious leisure passion that you quit because of the pressures of work? What are you waiting for? Can you make time to rekindle that aspect of yourself? If you don’t have a serious leisure passion, can you make time to start something new? You might just find you become more interesting, energetic, creative, and effective at work for it.

Look it up


Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Michelle Hammond
Michelle Hammond is associate professor of management at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan.