Corporate minds might benefit from sabbaticals.

Source: Los Angeles Business Journal
Date: 4/5/2004
Author: Lynn, Matthew

No doubt many of us have sometimes wished the boss would go away, for a long time. Preferably far, far away. Somewhere remote. Without phones.

Just a desk cowboy's daydream? For some business leaders, it's coming true. They've borrowed from the more sedate world of academia, awarding themselves a sabbatical.

Robert Chapman, who runs the $130 million Chapman Capital LLC hedge fund, said he was returning capital to his shareholders. Are returns no good? Does he think the market's so dire you might as well put your cash under the mattress?

No. Chapman, whose Los Angeles-based fund has returned about 20 percent a year on average since it opened in 1996, wants to take a year and a half to travel around the world. In the meantime, his fund holders can look after their own money.

That followed a similar move by another hedge-fund manager, J. Carlo Cannell, the founder of San Francisco-based Cannell Capital LLC. Cannell told his investors that he was stepping down from running his funds full time to spend more time with his family.

"Whoever has the most gold when they die doesn't win," said Cannell. "I seek a break. It may be six months. It may be forever."

These men could not be described as slackers. They built their businesses single-handedly. That breed is usually characterized by an obsessive, driven determination. If they wanted to take life easy, they wouldn't have set up their own companies.

They are probably rich enough not to have to worry about earning a living. It is also plausible--and this is the most interesting explanation--that they are using the word sabbatical in its original, religious sense: A period of rest and renewal, following which you come back stronger than ever. Chapman plans to start managing a new fund in January 2006 when he returns from his trip.

The word sabbatical comes from the same root as Sabbath, meaning the seventh period, although in this sense it refers to agriculture rather than worship. The actual reference is in Leviticus, chapter 25, verses two and three: "Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: Thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard."

Like many points in the Bible, you can take or leave the religious ideas according to your personal convictions.

There's still a lot of practical wisdom. Farmers have to let land lie fallow from time to time. Likewise, maybe corporate leaders are starting to realize they have to take fallow years to restore their energy or health. In Chapman's case, he decided to take time off after fracturing his spine in two places in a surfing accident in October.

In the past decade, business has become a lot more frenetic, and the career-span of the average chief executive a lot shorter. For the period they are in the job, the pressure to perform becomes ever more intense. If you don't deliver quickly, you can't expect to survive long.

Running a company used to be about doing things. Now, it is as much about thinking about things. Maybe that explains why businessmen are stealing a lesson from universities. To see issues clearly, a mind needs to be rested. A sabbatical helps professors do that. Who knows? Maybe it will help corporate leaders as well.

Matthew Lynn is a columnist with Bloomberg News.