Failing to lead by example

The importance of setting a good example for work-life balance as a manager, the power of admitting when you’re wrong, and how prioritizing vacation time can actually enhance your team’s productivity and morale.

Lucas A. Meyer


June 16, 2022

One of the worst things I have done as a manager was to go to a meeting. Luckily, I had a friend on that meeting (also a manager) that taught me something really important.

Here’s what I did wrong.

There was this meeting between several data science teams. It was really hard to find a time that worked for everybody. The meeting ended up being scheduled on a Friday morning, at about 9 AM on the day I was going on vacations. I couldn’t go, so I gave the meeting to one of my directs and we planned it out together. Some of the other teams had prep meetings, of which both me and my direct could (and did) participate. I couldn’t be on the big meeting to align on the roadmap, but it was well-supported and felt like everything was under control. Other members of my team would also attend to provide details about their projects, and they were well-prepared.

On the day of the meeting, which was also the first day of my long-awaited vacations, I was packed and ready to leave for my trip when I got a notice that my flight was delayed. I was planning to leave home a little after 9 AM, but now I could safely leave 10:30 AM and still arrive comfortably at the airport. Staying home longer would even mean less traffic to the airport.

With time to spare, I decided to join the meeting, even though I was a little late. When I joined, the meeting stopped, and people said something to the effect of “Oh, Lucas, I thought you were on vacation and were not going to join”, to which I responded: “I’m on vacations, but my flight was delayed. Since I could join and didn’t want to miss the meeting, I joined”.

Surprisingly directly and publicly, my friend on the meeting said: “Nah, you should log off. Otherwise, you’re going to start giving my team and your team the impression that they should join meetings during their vacations if they can, and that’s not setting a good example for work life balance”. (This was at Amazon, by the way).

I flushed for 10 seconds (it was an audio call only, thankfully) but realized she was completely right. I was a little embarrassed for being called out in public, but I’m usually not embarrassed for being wrong, at least not for long. I said: “You’re right, sorry for the disruption, I’m the least prepared for this meeting since I wasn’t planning to attend, and I’m sure I’ll be updated when I get back, I’ll drop off now”, got a bunch of “Have a good vacation” and disconnected.

In addition to showing that “vacations are important”, I also had the opportunity to show that “being wrong is ok”. Nobody was shutting me out. When I came back, I took over that workstream and ran it to the end. I was just making it harder for my team to help me by showing that I could help myself. Besides, we were just being fiercely protective of the work/life balance that we worked so hard to achieve on that group.

I didn’t realize the message I was sending, and I was glad to be called out.