In the 20 years I've run companies, I've never noticed or cared how much vacation my employees took. I operated on the assumption that they all were adults and would take off the time they needed--and that they were far better judges of this than I could ever be. I cannot remember ever being let down.
I took the same attitude toward maternity leave. First-time mothers-to-be would approach me with complex plans of how they intended to take time off and then return to work. These were well-intentioned and often worked out in minute detail. But as a parent myself, I knew one thing for certain: No woman knows how she will react to becoming a mother for the first time. So I said the same to everyone: Do what's right for you and for the baby and keep me posted.
Parental leave was just the same. I didn't want people at work to be worrying about their kids. I trusted them to know what was important--at work and at home. If anyone was in danger of letting down co-workers, the team would know it--and deal with it--far earlier than I'd ever noticed. Loyalty between people is one of the strongest guarantors of reliability and far more empowering than rules and paperwork.
And I was never disappointed. The people who worked for me had good judgment, liked their work, and wanted to do it well. They appreciated that the best way to do a good job is to be able to focus and be rested. And I knew that the one sure-fire way to destroy creativity was to impose a climate of fear. I wanted people to come to work because they wanted to--not because they were afraid not to.
Most Americans have the shortest vacation allowance in the developed world and they don't take all of it. When I ask why, most of the answers resonate with fear: fear that I'll miss something, be out of the loop, be deemed a slacker, get laid off because I'm not there to protect my back. We know enough now about how the brain reacts to threats to know that this mindset is profoundly counterproductive.
But the critical issue goes well beyond the individual employee or company. Businesses are part of society. They exist to serve society, both in providing goods and services and in creating jobs. We need both sides of that equation to flourish. Henry Ford understood this perfectly. "It ought to be the employer's ambition to pay better wages than any similar line of business and it ought to be the workman's ambition to make this possible," he said. "What good is industry if it be so unskillfully managed as not to return a living to everyone concerned?" And that living includes time off.