Guest AuthorRaja Jamalamadaka

Want to understand your authentic self and truly improve your leadership skills? This one routine does just that

By | Raja Jamalamadaka | Industry speaker | Neuroscience coach | Marshall Goldsmith awardee | Author | LinkedIn Top voice | IIT | Harvard

Every year, for a few weeks in May, I take an annual vacation and visit 2-3 countries with my family. I started this routine, years back based on advice from my mentor. He vaguely hinted that the vacation would help strengthen my leadership. Frankly, I found this difficult to digest – I wondered what leadership lessons could be learnt on a break while away from work? Further, wont the work catchup upon return be a frustrating experience? And the expenses on an international vacation? As was (and is) his wont, my mentor didn’t respond to these questions.

Despite my initial skepticism, I opted for it – I almost always defer to my mentor’s views. Secondly, the prospect of spending quality time with my family – otherwise difficult given my busy work routines – appealed to me.

After years of vacations, this routine has turned out to be exactly what my mentor predicted – the BEST leadership learning experience and way better than any academic course or real work. Not convinced? Read further.

The background

My vacations aren’t tour-operator planned affairs – these are entirely planned by my family using a consensus approach. As a family, we decide the countries, research each city/spot/attraction to visit in line with our evolving choices and finalize the itinerary. Every decision thereafter from visa, flight, accommodation (hotel/ryokan/apartment) to travel mode (train, cruise, flight etc) bears our personal stamp. Of course, I have been blessed with friends/acquaintances spread across more than 100 countries on all 6 continents – they help the exercise. 

These vacations aren’t a one-size-fits-all proposition – each vacation budgets adequate time for our personal interests too – my wife for her shopping, my kids for their circus/parks etc while I budget time for reading and networking with industry stalwarts in the city I visit. There is enough flexibility too – what’s not found attractive enough is dropped then and there.

So where are the learnings? Read on.

Handling adversities and understanding self

No experience (business, job) in my life has taught me as much about handling adversities and shocks as these vacations.

1.      One vacation, an hour before I was to board a cruise from one country to another, I lost my wallet loaded with cards and cash. Good bye to money for the next 20 days.

2.      Another time, while inside a European high speed train and face-to-face with the ticket checker, I realized that I had forgotten my train tickets back home in India.

3.      Deplaned due to overbooked flights and mis-routings, stranded in the middle of nowhere with family sans a network connection, language barriers leading to failed communication at the most inopportune of time, serious food challenges (compounded by my strict vegetarian diet), being picked up local authorities due to a misunderstanding of social mores – I have faced all of these.

Undeniably, what I learnt from these experiences about handling vicissitudes of life and adversities has been valuable. However, the real learning worth its weight in gold has been an understanding of self – my deeply held values, fears, insecurities, prejudices, bias, conditioning – something that even the best personality assessment tool couldn’t get close to exposing. The real “me” wasn’t what I projected or what I thought I was –accepting that was extremely liberating for me.

If you truly want to understand the AUTHENTIC you (NOT the sophisticated version that the society and corporate world forces you to project), stand face-to-face with adversity. And an annual time away from work is a great forum to help you achieve just that.

Understanding your team members and your reports

EVERY manager or leader will tell you that they know their staff members well and have great relations with their staff. Ask their reports/colleagues and you hear something different (that’s why managers dread 360 feedbacks). Almost everyone in the corporate world presents their best (and sometimes a fake) version of themselves to others and especially to their peers and leaders. So how do you know the truly authentic version of your staff? Get away from them and give them 100% freedom with zero supervision. Take a vacation – for their sake.

Ensure you are truly out of sight and mind – keep away from mails, maintain minimal contact, refuse to intervene unless critical and allow them freedom to take decisions (whilst assuring that you will watch their back). Trust me this is DIFFICULT – I couldn’t resist the urge to check on my staff the first time round. However, my mentor advised against – and given the tremendous respect I have for him, I choose to follow his counsel. Years later, the results have been really great. Seeing my staff in action from a distance (both literally and figuratively) has afforded me the opportunity to appreciate their authentic version – it has been a joy to see them be themselves. More importantly, seeing them in action sans me has helped me identify their development needs and take important decision on their careers. 

If you are a leader in any capacity, try this exercise yourself. Aside of the points I listed above, you will understand the integrity quotient and leadership potential of your people very well – No academic course, external coach or leadership evaluation tool can uncover these traits as comprehensively as your absence (There is truth in the quote “If you want to know true leadership potential of someone, give them power and freedom”).

Lastly, you will know for sure who is your key-man and who you want to partner with long term.


While on vacation, I have always chosen to gift adequate personal space and time to myself. During these quiet moments, I reflect on everything – my relations, choices, tastes, growth (beyond the ephemeral professional titles), life, ambitions, actions, life episodes– nothing is off-bounds. What started years ago as a highly judgmental exercise has transitioned into non-judgmental exercise in observation of self. There are no rules, just free-flow – self-reflection in its true sense.

The benefit? I don’t know if I can put this in words, but said simply, these quiet moments of self-reflection have afforded me greater peace than just about anything I have done in my life. Secondly, I understand myself best during these periods of self-reflection.

There is another important dimension here. Beyond a point in your leadership journey, your mentor won’t (and can’t) counsel you – he/she can only help you to figure it out yourself. Without periods of self-reflection, you simply don’t get to the point of helping yourself rendering your mentor helpless.

But why do you need a vacation for this? Why not just do it over a long weekend? Well, my experience shows that it takes changed environs and adequate time (perhaps weeks) to truly unwind and break free from imposed shackles of life. Such a neutral state is reached only at the fag end of my three-week vacation (yes, three weeks). That’s a little difficult to achieve over a weekend break – – the rough and tumble of life will always de-energize you.

Cherish experiences

We all spend a lot of our time on tangible items (work output, targets, house, purchases etc). However, this is a boon (or curse) of modern life – not the way our brains are wired genetically. Our brains cherish EXPERIENCES over GADGETS. Fulfillment, happiness, a feeling of self worth and almost all positive emotions are linked longer term to experiences. The brain cherishes, relaxes, rejuvenates, learns and grows from experiences – experiences are the main course of the brain’s food, gadgets are the brain’s desserts. Imagine being fed a diet, 90% of which is composed of desserts – will you be physically healthy? How then do you expect to be mentally healthy without adequate time spent on experiences?

A vacation is 100% experience – you get nothing tangible from it. But it is guaranteed that those experiences will play a powerful role in shaping your life – you will understand yourself, your people and energize your brain unlike anything. Someone said it right 

The person who ended the vacation is never the same as the one who started it.

I would love to hear your views on the article. Please leave your comments in the box below.

Republished with permission and originally published at Raja Jamalamadaka’s LinkedIn

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