Whooping as I zipped down a hill on my mountain bike today, I realized I don’t tap into such exuberant joy anywhere other than outside. If you must ask why leaders should take time to get outside, isn’t that enough — unbridled joy? Ok, maybe you’re a skeptic, a stoic leader, an evidence-based-only executive. Please allow me to make a case for why you need to make outside time a #1 priority now.
The health benefits of time outside- 12% lower mortality rate, elevated immunity, lower stress hormones, decreased hypertension, and so on- have been well documented by empirical research. If these are not enough reasons alone to prompt a purposeful half hour outing every day, that’s surprising. Ignoring this is like refusing an all natural miracle drug that is fun to take. But seriously, getting outside matters to your bottom line. Leaders we coach often battle long hours, constant stress, and decision fatigue. They consistently deny self-care, ironically, wearing this self-denial as a badge of honor. The truth is, people might tangentially respect your hard work, but in general don’t want to follow a fuzzy-headed, strung out and exhausted leader. This matters especially in crises, when we need invigorated, focused and present decision makers to lean on. Your energy as a leader directly impacts your people’s energy. Consider emotional contagion, yes science again. Just a couple hours a week outside will rejuvenate you. Did I mention you live longer?
Solve problems fast
Not convinced? If you are responsible for any strategic thinking, it’s silly to discount time outside. Studies show that time outside can boost creativity significantly! Yes, that’s science too. It’s not surprising. Sitting in noisy offices creates distractions that limit ‘flow’ at work. Often it only takes a few minutes to sit under a tree in a park or a few hours to hike to a vista to unlock awe- an emotion combining a sense of vastness with the need to shift your perspective. David Rock explains that with a fresh perspective, instead of futally poking at every angle of an intractable problem with our prefrontal cortex, we step into a different dimension with our hippocampus and voila, problem solved. If you’re feeling a little myopic in your office, it’s not surprising. Children who don’t get outside in modern society are literally more short-sighted because they don’t get a chance to gaze over vistas. You will figuratively run into the same problem sitting in your office.
Need more inspiration? From Kingfishers beaks to bullet trains and termite mounds to skyscrapers, top researchers in the field of biomimicry are solving some of the worlds toughest problems by seeking guidance from nature. You could probably do the same. Our brain expects to see natural phenomena such as fractals and ecosystems, and in that environment solutions that have worked for nature for millions of years become cognitively available. Not buying it yet? Outdoor time makes you smarter too! Again one empirical study showed that four days outside boosts creativity and cognition by 50%- yes 50%!
A character crucible
Time outside creates character- fast. The single thing that makes leaders distinct from anyone else is character. It defines us, dictates how we act under pressure and whether or not we inspire others. Nature does not have customer service. When things go wrong, mountains don’t care. Getting lost outside can be scary as heck, and these very real consequences demand growth. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found in his seminal ‘flow’ research that optimal learning (and working) environments match your skill with a challenge just a little beyond you. The outdoors offers one of the few places you can get way outside your comfort zone, learn deeply about yourself, and grow in big ways, even on a Saturday afternoon. Try it! Go take on an outdoor challenge that scares you a little and revel in the new awareness and self reliance that emerges. To top it off, Harvard Business Review recently discussed humility as a key character trait of great leaders. Can you train for humility? Absolutely, go hike a mountain. I promise you’ll feel small.
But it’s so far away…
Going outside as a serious leader can seem frivolous, a low priority when ‘real responsibilities’ compete for your attention. Here’s the fact though – on average we use our cell phones 2,600 times a day. We religiously multitask, despite resounding agreement in academia that our brains don’t work that way. We are increasingly depressed (around 16.2 million people in the U.S. now suffer from depression annually)- a problem science shows time outside alleviates. Outdoor time for leaders seems frivolous, but that’s simply not what we all intuitively know to be true or what science says. The jury is not out on this one. Science clearly shows that a few hours a week outside will make you happier, healthier, more creative, more strategic, more inspirational, and yes, you’ll live longer.
–Knight Campbell, CEO Cairn Leadership