Absent Leadership

There are two types of managers when it comes to annual leave: Those who frustrate everyone and those who delegate authority. I have seen numerous instances where all activity and action is suspended because (as the receptionist informs you) “Sorry he/she is on leave at the moment, you’ll have to wait until they get back.”

This is hardly the most productive way to conduct business. Think about it, if you get paid a salary to manage a part of a business and you get paid leave, then the business should be able to operate when you are not there. You are being paid to ensure that happens.

Let’s look at it from two angles. First the manager going on leave, then the person who picks up in their absence.

Why should you designate a replacement when you go on leave?

1. It’s part of your job. You are paid to ensure the business runs. So do it!

2. It’s good for your career. This second reason is more interesting so let’s go into detail.

A key criterion when the people “upstairs” discuss who to promote is risk. Or more accurately, the avoidance of risk. If you have one, or ideally two, subordinates being actively groomed to take over your role at short notice, you are more likely to get promoted. If there is no planned succession, the risk is that by moving you, the “indispensable” manager, your unit will falter, then we won’t move you.

As a manager at any level, your responsibility is to develop and manage the performance of your subordinates in their current role, and prepare them for the next. You should have an agreed personal development plan in place for each of them every year, with agreed development objectives. For a subordinate who is being developed for future promotion you will teach, coach, mentor them to build their capability for the next job, but how will you know when they are ready?

The only way is to actually delegate parts of your job from time to time, in a controlled manner, to allow them to put theory into practice and demonstrate what they have learned. This gives you, them and the organisation the confidence of knowing when they are ready to take a new opportunity.

This should be done on an ongoing basis through the year, but annual leave is the perfect time to really put things to the test.


1. Plan it carefully.

2. Be clear in advance what authority you are delegating and where the boundaries are.

3. Ensure you give clear public authority so that your subordinate is not challenged while you are away.

4. Make sure they and your boss know what the escalation process is if they need support while you are away.

5. Consider giving them some key tasks, preferably ones where you have taught them all they need to know, to do in your absence. This will give them confidence in execution without the stress of you looking over their shoulder.

6. Have a thorough debrief when you get back. This is a learning experience.

7. Relax and enjoy the holiday, safe in the knowledge that you are truly doing your job while you lie on the beach and recharge.

And remember, you are demonstrating your ability to develop people and their leadership. This is one of the leadership competencies you are measured on, so have the conversation with your boss so that they know you are doing it.

For the subordinate who takes over from the boss during holidays:


1. This is an opportunity, not a burden. Seize it! It is your chance to demonstrate what you have learned and your readiness for promotion when the opportunity arises.

2. It doesn’t guarantee promotion next year. See it as a learning opportunity.

3. Ensure you have absolute clarity from your boss what your authority limits are and check this has been made public.

4. Make sure you know who you can go to if necessary for anything unusual that happens.

5. Discuss beforehand with your manager what aspects of your development objectives this links to and how they will measure success.

6. If they delegate a specific part of their regular tasks to you while they are away, (such as the monthly management report), ensure you have absolute clarity on how they want it done.

7. Agree what success looks like.

8. Plan time to debrief the experience when they get back.

About Tony Latimer

Master Executive Coach in Singapore and Asia to Leaders in Transition. Bringing Profitable Leadership to international organizations. Expert management and leadership coaching skills training. Co-Author of The Handbook of Knowledge Based Coaching: From Theory to Practice & Coaching in Asia: The First Decade.