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published: 03 July 2020
Omer Farooq Malik,
COMSATS University Islamabad,
Joann Farrell Quinn,
University of South Florida,
Lynda Jiwen Song,
Renmin University of China, China
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 18 February 2020
Accepted: 29 May 2020
Published: 03 July 2020
Bunea E (2020) “Grace Under
Pressure”: How CEOs Use Serious
Leisure to Cope With the Demands
of Their Job. Front. Psychol. 11:1453.
“Grace Under Pressure”: How CEOs
Use Serious Leisure to Cope With the
Demands of Their Job
School of Business and Economics, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
How chief executive ofﬁcers (CEOs) use their leisure to help respond to the demands
of their job is important for themselves, their employees, and their organizations. This
study shines light on this hardly explored subject by focusing on CEOs of major US
companies and their “serious leisure,” the goal-oriented pursuit of a non-work passion.
Serious leisure is increasingly practiced by the population at large as well as by top
leaders. This study is based on 16 interviews with “serious leisurite” CEOs of Fortune
500, S&P 500, or comparable organizations. Novel insights are brought into the ways
in which CEOs believe their passionate non-work pursuit supports not only coping with
the strain of the top job but also optimal functioning in it, as well as into how they
perceive the demands of the CEO role. This work contributes to research on leader
personal resources and leader effectiveness, executive job demands, as well as to the
leisure-based recovery literature.
Keywords: CEOs, serious leisure, leader resources, leader stress, executive job demands
When Jeﬀ Kindler, chief executive oﬃcer (CEO) of Pﬁzer, abruptly resigned in 2011, he blamed the
“24/7 struggle” to meet the high and conﬂicting demands of his many stakeholders (Lemer, 2011,
p. 1). In a 2018 interview, Elon Musk was on the brink of tears while describing the “excruciating
personal toll” of leading Tesla (Gelles, 2018, p. 1). Although rare compared to the usual, carefully
scripted self-portrayals of CEOs as energetic and in control (Gray and Densten, 2007;Pollach
and Kerbler, 2011), confessions like these remind us that the leaders of the corporate world do
sometimes become overwhelmed by the demands of their job.
Why should we care? As public opinion has it, CEOs get handsomely rewarded for any
inconvenience their jobs may present. Moreover, several studies show that managers’ mental health
is not worse than that of non-managers (Ganster, 2005;Skakon et al., 2011;Sherman et al., 2012;
Li et al., 2018). One could debate how applicable these studies, based on entry-level to mid-level
managers often working in government or the military, may be to the corporate executive suite, but
such debates would take our focus away from the fact that, when it does occur, CEO stress has far-
reaching consequences for the company’s results (Hambrick et al., 2005a;Siren et al., 2018) and for
the quality of their leadership (Hambrick et al., 2005b;Sprague et al., 2011;Wirtz et al., 2017). Given
that job-related stress arises from an imbalance between the demands of the job and the resources
available to do it (Bakker and Demerouti, 2017) and since executive job demands are “qualitatively
diﬀerent” from job demands at other levels of the organization (Hambrick et al., 2005a, p. 474),
it is thus important to understand how CEOs experience the challenges of their job and how they
cope with the stress involved. Moreover, examining leaders’ mental health should go beyond stress
to considering “positive attributes such as optimism, hope, vigor, and self-eﬃcacy; the presence
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of such attributes may be more important than the absence of
mental health challenges” (Barling and Cloutier, 2017, p. 399). Yet
the question of leaders’ mental health has hardly been addressed
in empirical studies, be it because we see CEOs as “hardened
individuals capable of handling substantial stress” (Siren et al.,
2018, p. 954) or because it is notoriously hard for researchers to
access CEOs’ inner life (Mueller and Lovell, 2015).
This paper explores how CEOs who have a passionate non-
work interest (a “serious leisure” interest) perceive the role of
their serious leisure in helping them cope with the demands
of their job. The choice of focusing on “serious leisurites”
was not only because talking about a personal activity that is
dear to their heart was more likely to make CEOs drop their
“corporate speak” defenses but also because there has been
little research attention to how serious leisure interacts with
work in general, let alone executives’ work. With society-wide
serious leisure participation continuing to grow, from amateur
music (Bonde et al., 2018) to “career volunteering” (Cantillon
and Baker, 2019) to marathon running (Vitti et al., 2019), and
with serious leisurite CEOs no longer a rare occurrence, a
qualitative exploration of this novel connection, how top leaders
see the role of their serious leisure in responding to their job
demands, is warranted.
To answer the research question, interviews were held with
25 CEOs of S&P 500 or comparable organizations (median
headcount: 16,000). As the interviews revealed that only 16
among the interviewees (median headcount: 19,000) have a
serious leisure interest, these 16 interviews constituted the ﬁnal
sample. Although the intensity of executive job demands is
subjective (reﬂecting the incumbent’s perception of how diﬃcult
the top job is) and depends on many factors in addition
to company size, large public companies can be expected to
place higher demands on their CEOs than smaller or private
organizations (Hambrick et al., 2005a). Given the size of their
companies, the CEOs in our sample thus likely represent an
extreme case of executive job demands, which is a good place
to start when qualitatively exploring new theoretical territories
The analysis of the data has brought up novel insights with
regard to how CEOs perceive the demands of their job, including
those pertaining to transformational leadership, how they see
the stress involved, and how they believe their serious leisure
interests uniquely help them both manage this stress and build
substantial personal resources needed for optimal functioning in
the CEO role. Thus, this study contributes to research on leader
psychological resources (Barron et al., 2000;Chen, 2015;Rego
et al., 2019), upper echelon theory, and speciﬁcally executive job
demands (Hambrick et al., 2005a) and to studies of work recovery
through leisure (Sonnentag et al., 2017).
CEO Job Demands and Personal
The upper echelon theory proposes that top executives’
idiosyncratic characteristics, perceptions, and dispositions have
a signiﬁcant impact on organizational outcomes (Hambrick,
2007) and that an important moderator for this relationship is
represented by executive job demands, deﬁned as “the degree
to which a given executive experiences his or her job as
diﬃcult or challenging” (Hambrick et al., 2005a, p. 474). More
generally, the job demands–resources (JD–R) theory deﬁnes job
demands as those aspects of the job that require sustained
eﬀort and thus exact psychological and/or physiological costs
from the jobholder. High job demands are associated with high
risk of strain, but the availability of job resources moderates
this relationship, acting as a buﬀer (Demerouti et al., 2001).
Recognizing that “stress” is a concept that has been variously
deﬁned and that can encompass a wider array of symptoms, this
study follows our interviewees’ representation of it as emotional
exhaustion and/or anxiety, and therefore it uses the terms
emotional exhaustion, stress, and strain interchangeably.
Compared to job demands in the JD–R model, executive
job demands represent a phenomenological, not an objectively
measurable, construct and seem to already take into account the
(perceived) job resources available since perceived job diﬃculty
would likely represent a “net result” of job demands minus
job resources. While the JD–R model represents the general
background for this paper, the executive job demands concept is
speciﬁcally adopted as closest to the interviewees’ sensemaking
with regard to the challenges of their role.
Later reﬁnements of the JD–R model added another important
moderator of the job demands–burnout relationship: personal
resources (Bakker and Demerouti, 2017). Moreover, according to
the JD–R theory, high resources (job and personal ones) are also
associated with high job motivation especially when job demands
are also high: in other words, resources are most appreciated
when they are highly needed (Bakker and Demerouti, 2017).
Examples of personal resources found to moderate the risk
of emotional exhaustion and/or to promote motivation when
job demands are high are optimism, self-eﬃcacy, and self-
esteem (Huang et al., 2016), psychological capital (a set of
positive psychological resources consisting of hope, self-eﬃcacy,
resilience, and optimism) (Luthans and Youssef-Morgan, 2017;
Madrid et al., 2018), mindfulness (Grover et al., 2017), “tenacity”
(persisting toward one’s goals) (De Clercq and Belausteguigoitia,
2017), and “core self-evaluations” (a construct composed of self-
esteem, locus of control, general self-eﬃcacy, and emotional
stability) (van Doorn and Hulsheger, 2015). What is missing from
this wealth of quantitative ﬁndings is the voice of the jobholders
themselves and therefore a more nuanced understanding of
how they use personal resources to cope with the demands of
their work, where coping represents “the thoughts and behaviors
used to manage the internal and external demands of situations
that are appraised as stressful” (Folkman and Moskowitz, 2004,
p. 745). Moreover, the role of personal resources in relation
to executive job demands has not been examined. While I
believe, unlike some observers of the C-suite, that CEOs are
also people and therefore the accumulated research on personal
resources and job demands is, to some extent, also applicable
to them, the subjective and the diﬀerent nature of executive
job demands (Hambrick et al., 2005a) justiﬁes the need for
a dedicated investigation of how CEOs perceive the demands
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of their role and how their personal resources can help them
respond to such demands.
In their inﬂuential paper on executive job demands, Hambrick
et al. (2005a) propose (while admitting that empirical insight
is yet to come) that, unlike in the general JD–R model, top
executives might partly create their own job demands by setting
high aspirations for their own performance. An important
dimension of these aspirations is arguably represented by the
CEOs’ expectations of themselves as leaders.
CEOs’ Expectations of Themselves as
Individuals hold cognitive schemas specifying what they expect
leaders are like and how they behave, known as “implicit
leadership theories” (ILTs). For the population at large, these
conceptualizations have changed little over the past two decades,
with “true” leaders still seen, for example, as highly dedicated
to their role, strong, and charismatic (Oﬀermann and Coats,
2018). One can expect CEOs’ ILTs to be at least partially
inﬂuenced by the generally shared ones, but there is little
empirical insight thereon. CEOs do often share their views of
leadership in public interviews (e.g., Gordon and Martin, 2019).
However, these outwardly expressed views are arguably as much
inﬂuenced by prevailing discourses of what constitutes “good
leadership” as by the CEOs’ own unﬁltered sensemaking. In turn,
discourses of “good leadership” emphasize behaviors that are
most often associated with “positive” forms of leadership such
as transformational, charismatic, authentic, or ethical leadership
(Alvesson and Einola, 2019). While there has been vigorous
scholarly questioning of the value added by authentic, ethical,
and servant leadership concepts over and above transformational
leadership (Hoch et al., 2018), most conceptualizations of
“good leadership” include at least part of the four tenets of
transformational leadership behavior (inspirational motivation,
idealized inﬂuence, intellectual stimulation, and individual
consideration), and this is reﬂected in leadership training
programs and textbooks.
Expectations from leaders are also informed by the
phenomenon known as the “romance of leadership,” the
tendency to attribute an exaggerated, larger-than-life role of the
leader in the success or in the failure of their company (Meindl
and Ehrlich, 1987), yet most research eﬀorts have focused on the
followers’ romance of leadership perceptions, with little known
about the leaders’ own romance of leadership notions (Bligh
et al., 2011) and how these notions inﬂuence their expectations
of themselves. A large-scale study of Australian executives (the
majority working in organizations of 500 or fewer employees)
found that they engaged in “self-deception” triggered by romance
of leadership notions (Gray and Densten, 2007), which would
suggest self-deception as a way of bridging the gap between
the leaders’ perceived own leadership abilities and their own
romantic notions of leadership.
One important dimension of ILTs (dedication), when joined
to the romantic expectation of heroic deeds by the leader, may
converge into the expectation that leaders self-sacriﬁce for the
good of the collective. Research has shown that leaders who
engage in self-sacriﬁcial behavior are seen as more eﬀective
by their followers (De Cremer and van Knippenberg, 2004;
Van Knippenberg and Van Knippenberg, 2005) and that leaders
who are higher in power (arguably the case of CEOs) may
be more inclined to self-sacriﬁce than lower-power leaders
(Hoogervorst et al., 2012).
In this context, we know little about how CEOs’
expectations of themselves as leaders inﬂuence their perceived
executive job demands.
Leader Psychological Resources and
Research regarding the role psychological resources play in
leaders’ eﬀectiveness has mostly focused on psychological capital,
found to alleviate the strain caused by high job demands (Hur
et al., 2016;Sheng et al., 2019) and, alongside other positive
resources such as mindfulness, to predict the well-being of
leaders (Roche et al., 2014). When leaders’ psychological capital
is high, the quality of leader–member exchange increases, in turn
promoting high psychological capital for followers (Chen et al.,
2019). Global leaders’ psychological capital buﬀers the negative
eﬀects of geographical distance on the relationship with their
followers (Story et al., 2013).
This paper mentions “leader” and “CEO” interchangeably,
although it fully subscribes to the view that conceptualizations
of leadership should be de-coupled from formal positions of
management. The belief that these interviews with CEOs are
also relevant for the broader leadership literature stems ﬁrstly
from the fact that the interviewed CEOs themselves show a
preoccupation for, and talk about, leadership and leadership
development (theirs and others’), secondly from the high
likelihood that, given their formal positions and work experience,
these CEOs would, in fact, engage in leadership in their day-to-
day work (DeRue and Ashford, 2010), and thirdly from the fact
that CEOs of S&P 500 companies are highly visible and therefore
have a word to say in the shaping of prevailing discourses on
leadership, which in turn inform the construction of leadership
by other (would be) leaders and their (potential) followers.
Serious Leisure and Personal Resources
Grounded in the Conservation of Resources Theory (Hobfoll,
1989), an ample body of research documents how oﬀ-work
recovery experiences restore personal resources depleted by
work (Sonnentag et al., 2017). The initial list of four types
of recovery experiences (psychological detachment from work,
relaxation, mastery, and control) was subsequently extended
with the experience of pleasure and enjoyment (Sonnentag and
Fritz, 2007). These experiences promote the creation of personal
resources such as self-eﬃcacy, positive aﬀect, and relevant skills
or (in the case of detachment) protect against further resource
loss (Sonnentag and Fritz, 2007).
While most leisure activities can provide some form of
recovery experience, serious leisure is ideally positioned in terms
of the range and the strength of recovery experiences and
personal resources it promotes. Serious leisure represents “the
systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity
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that is suﬃciently substantial and interesting for a participant
to ﬁnd a ‘career’ there in the acquisition and expression of its
special skills and knowledge” (Stebbins, 1982, p. 3). By deﬁnition,
serious leisure is diﬀerent from casual leisure based on six
characteristics: ﬁrst, it involves a signiﬁcant eﬀort in mastering
a speciﬁc skill or knowledge; second, it requires perseverance
as serious leisure participants occasionally face setbacks, fatigue,
and other challenges; third, it has its unique ethos, a social
world around the serious leisure pursuit, that has its own
beliefs, values, and norms (Stebbins, 1982); fourth, it develops
a strong serious leisure identity; ﬁfth, it often leads to a leisure
“career” that progresses during a person’s life through “special
contingencies, turning points, and stages of achievement and
involvement” (Stebbins, 2007, p. 11); and lastly, it generates
several types of enduring beneﬁts, the most frequent of which
are (a) self-actualization and personal growth, (b) conﬁdence
and enhancement of self-image through the display of unique
skills, capacities, and knowledge, (c) feelings of connection
and belonging supported by the pursuit’s social world, (d)
self-expression (expressing one’s abilities and individuality), (e)
renewal, regeneration, and recovery, (f) mastery, competence,
and feelings of accomplishment, and (g) happiness and subjective
well-being (Major, 2001;Stalp, 2006;Bendle and Patterson, 2009;
Kim et al., 2015).
This powerful cocktail of personal resources built by serious
leisure suggests that it can play an important role in buﬀering
the burnout risk associated with high job demands, yet we
know little about how serious leisurites perceive this relationship.
Importantly, beliefs about coping with stress through one’s leisure
do have a stress-buﬀering eﬀect (Iwasaki and Mannell, 2000).
Therefore, a qualitative exploration of how serious leisurites
believe that their passion helps them cope with the demands of
their jobs can oﬀer valuable insights.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Sample and Data Collection
As little is known about how CEOs perceive the role of their
passionate non-work interests in responding to the demands of
their jobs, I opted for a qualitative approach to this investigation.
First, I purposefully built the sample as follows: as a former
corporate CEO myself, I started by sending LinkedIn invitations
to connect to all CEOs of the top 1,000 US companies listed
on Glassdoor.com who had a LinkedIn proﬁle, as well as to
all CEOs of S&P 500 and/or Fortune 500 companies (if not
already included among the 1,000 CEOs mentioned earlier) who
were present on LinkedIn. The invitations used the standard
template oﬀered by LinkedIn, with no customized text. After
expanding my network of CEO connections in this manner, I sent
requests for interviews to the 147 CEOs among these connections
who led companies with over 5,000 employees.1The interview
invitations mentioned the intention to discuss the CEOs’
1Of the thresholds available on Linkedin for ﬁltering based on headcount,
a minimum of 5,000 seemed most likely to yield companies comparable in
headcount to those in the S&P 500 index rather than the neighboring options of
1,000 and 10,000.
passionate non-work interests (if any) and how they interacted
with their leadership. A total of 29 CEOs responded positively
(20% response rate), with 25 semi-structured interviews being
During the interviews, I assessed whether the CEOs’ non-
work interests qualiﬁed as serious leisure by broadly reviewing
the six properties that diﬀerentiate serious from casual leisure
(Gould et al., 2008). I found out that 16 of the interviewed
CEOs had a non-work interest that could qualify as serious
leisure, and therefore they represented the ﬁnal interview sample.
Their organizations count between 3,500 and 79,000 employees2
(median 19,000 employees) and their annual revenues being
between $1 billion and $137 billion (median $4.3 billion). At
the time of our interviews, three out of the 16 interviewees had
recently stepped down from the CEO position (with the longest
time from their last day in the oﬃce to our interview being
10 months). Of the 16 CEOs, 11 lead companies listed in the
S&P 500, the Fortune 500, or the FTSE 100 indices, with the
remaining ﬁve companies having a median headcount of 22,000.
By comparison, the median headcount of companies listed in the
S&P 500 index (the largest public US organizations) at the end of
2017 was 20,5003. The interviewees’ companies represent a wide
variety of industries4.
As mentioned earlier, given the size of their companies, these
CEOs likely represent an “extreme case” of serious leisurite
executives and their job demands, which makes their narratives
especially valuable because they can surface insights that would
be harder to attain under more regular conditions (Eisenhardt,
1989). Thus, although objectively small, the sample of 16
interviews with CEOs who have a passionate non-work interest
is suitable for the analytical, rather than statistical, generalization
targeted by qualitative research (Yin, 2013).
Table 1 presents the list of interviewed CEOs (who were
assigned ﬁctional names for anonymity) and their serious
The interview protocol cast a wider net, starting from the
initial broad question: “Why do some top CEOs engage in
serious leisure?” After a set of questions intended to assess the
“seriousness” of their leisure interest, I continued with open
questions such as “What does this activity do for you?” and
“What does it bring you?” While I did not ask direct questions
about stress management nor about the demands of the top job,
I believe that this approach elicited more genuine insights into
the CEOs’ struggles with their role demands (as the CEOs oﬀered
them unsolicited) than a more direct approach would have done
[see Harding (2014), for an example of positive managerial talk
obstructing the usefulness of research interviews]. The protocol
was followed loosely, allowing and encouraging the CEOs to
engage in storytelling and to freely associate starting from the
topic of their passionate non-work interest.
2According to the companies’ websites, more accurate than the headcount
information provided on Linkedin.
3Source: Compustat, author’s calculations.
4Financial services, technology, electronics, science and technology, restaurants,
business process outsourcing, retail stores, professional services, industrial goods,
medical services, industrial packaging, health insurance, health services, and home
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TABLE 1 | Interviewed CEOs and their serious leisure interests.
Jason Cycling Steven Ice hockey
Richard Soccer James Music
Paul Tennis Mary Martial arts
Larry Football coaching Robert Handcrafting greeting
Thomas Woodwork Kenneth Running
Jack Golf Anthony Music,
Kevin Golf, airplane piloting Susan Running
Bill Airplane piloting Laura Horse riding
The 16 interviews lasted between 27 and 93 min, with a
median of 45 min. The fact that the interviewer is herself a
former corporate CEO as well as a “serious leisurite” (a marathon
runner) helped build trust, a condition for accessing “the inner
world (meanings, ideas, feelings, intentions) or experienced social
reality of the interviewee” (Alvesson, 2003: 16).
In analyzing the data, thematic analysis was used (Braun and
Clarke, 2006), a method that, at its most basic, consists of the
identiﬁcation of patterns (“themes”) in a data set, followed by the
analysis of their meaning and importance. More speciﬁcally, this
paper uses “reﬂexive thematic analysis” (Braun and Clarke, 2019),
thus named in order to distinguish it from more positivist forms
of thematic analysis that are grounded on the assumption that
there is a “truth” waiting to be discovered in the data and that the
researchers should aim to stay as neutral as possible in order to
extract that truth in their ﬁndings. By contrast, when engaging
in reﬂexive thematic analysis, the researchers are keenly aware of
their own role in developing the themes from the data and engage
in constant reﬂection on the research process accompanying the
recursive generation of the themes. To begin, reﬂexive thematic
analysis requires that the researchers make (and state) several
important choices (Braun et al., 2016). The ﬁrst such choice
regards the epistemological and ontological paradigm (e.g.,
realist, critical, constructionist, etc.). This paper’s epistemology
is social constructionist, recognizing that leadership, executive
work, executive stress, and the meaning of identity-shaping
activities such as serious leisure are constructed and co-
constructed by the main actors and their role partners in social
interaction (Fairhurst, 2009). The second choice regards the use
of a “bottom–up,” inductive approach whereby the data drives
the coding and theme development and often even leads to a
re-formulation of the research question vs. a more “top–down,”
deductive approach whereby the analysis is, to some extent,
informed by pre-existing theoretical concepts and driven by the
research question. As this study’s research question was informed
by the JD–R model combined with the concept of executive job
demands and with the leisure recovery literature, and as in turn,
the research question drove the analysis, this would indicate a
mostly deductive approach. The third choice refers to awareness
about how one engages with the data: at the “semantic” level,
“coding explicitly stated ideas,” or at the “latent” level, reﬂecting
“the meanings and frameworks that underpin the things explicitly
stated” (Braun et al., 2016, p. 192). This paper aimed to engage
with the data mostly at the latent level. However, as these choices
are not either/or ones, most thematic analysis works include
a mix of semantic and latent and, respectively, of inductive
and deductive approaches (Braun et al., 2016), and the same is
true for this paper.
The data analysis process followed the six steps outlined
by Braun and Clarke (2006). Throughout this process, I was
aware that as the interviewer always plays a constitutive part
in the co-construction of “what is being said” together with
the interviewee (Alvesson, 2003), my background as a CEO
and an amateur marathon runner colored how the themes were
The ﬁrst step was deep familiarization with the data by
listening to the interview recordings again and by reading and
re-reading the interview transcripts. This step also refreshed
the recollection of the face-to-face interaction with the CEOs
as the tone of voice and/or the facial expression accompanying
an otherwise apparently blank statement by the interviewee
sometimes gave it a deeper meaning. For example, when the
CEO whose pseudonym is Jason said, in his sparsely decorated
oﬃce, “there is something about cycling that reminded me of
my youth. Of that freedom of just. . .” and stopped abruptly, his
voice and body language suggested the phrase could have ended
with something like “riding away from all of this,” a latent-level
message about yearning for freedom from the constraints of the
CEO role. In this stage, I also started taking notes about what
ideas may be in the data and why they might be relevant to the
The second step was generating initial codes, “the most basic
segment, or element, of the raw data or information that can
be assessed in a meaningful way regarding the phenomenon”
(Boyatzis, 1998, p. 63). Thus, the entire data set was systematically
evaluated, and each data element was given full and equal
attention in an iterative process of identifying aspects that may
group into patterns across the whole data set that would later
become the themes.
The third step was searching for themes. In this phase, codes
were analyzed and tentatively grouped into combinations that
shared a central idea, broadly guided by the research question.
There were several iterations between steps two and three as
thinking in terms of themes led to renaming, consolidating,
and/or discarding some of the initial codes. Several dominant
themes (and the codes underlying them) were identiﬁed, and
then a number of “sub-themes” and their corresponding codes
were also developed. To select the dominant themes, I used their
relevance for the research question as the decisive criterion rather
than how often they occurred or how much space they occupied
in the total transcript. At this stage, I drew an initial “thematic
map” (Braun and Clarke, 2006, p. 90) illustrating the themes,
sub-themes, and the connections made by the interviewees
between them. Finally, the remaining codes that did not ﬁt
into any of the themes were organized into a “placeholder”
group. As I later iterated between this step and the next, some
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of the “placeholder” codes were later re-grouped into viable
themes, while others were eventually discarded. The ﬁnal list of
underlying codes counted 59 such items capturing separate and
relevant pieces of information.
The fourth and ﬁfth steps were represented by reviewing the
themes, followed by the naming and the reﬁning of the themes.
Theme reviewing was undertaken with two aims: ﬁrst, to assess
whether the codes grouped under each theme really represent a
coherent pattern and, second, by taking more of a “helicopter”
view and re-reading the whole data set to gauge whether the
themes generated really represented the data set completely and
faithfully. The ﬁnal six themes and 21 sub-themes were named
and reﬁned to represent the core of what each theme said about
the data. The ﬁnal thematic map is shown in Figure 1.
The sixth and ﬁnal step was represented by the writing of the
ﬁndings organized around the key themes and their sub-themes.
The section below details how these relationships unfold.
Six key themes were developed around how the interviewed
CEOs speak about the role of their serious leisure in responding
to the demands of their job. The sequence in which they are
presented is mostly determined by readability as, in reality, some
of the CEOs started by speaking about the beneﬁts of their serious
leisure and then connecting them to the demands of their job,
while others began by describing the all-encompassing nature of
the CEO job before going into how their serious leisure helped
them cope with it. These ﬁndings show that serious leisurite
CEOs list coping with the overwhelming demands of their job
among the main beneﬁts of their non-work interest and that
they see a unique, irreplaceable role for their serious leisure
in this respect. Beyond managing stress, they ﬁnd an equally
important role for their serious leisure in creating valuable
personal resources that support the CEOs in meeting their own
demanding standards of leadership.
The “All-Consuming” Nature of the CEO
Job: Demanding Constant Sacriﬁce
The CEOs saw the demands of the top job as speciﬁc, diﬀerent
from those of other jobs and taking a larger-than-life presence:
You know what the job of CEO of a large company is like. It’s
quite consuming, said Anthony, singling out the CEO job (and
speciﬁcally CEO of a large company) as qualitatively diﬀerent in
its demands. They rarely described these demands in concrete
terms such as taking 100% of one’s time or continuously claiming
one’s undivided attention and preferred instead to use metaphors
(“all-consuming,” “all-encompassing,” and “sort of impossible”)
that suggested immense eﬀort and sacriﬁce. Nonetheless, they
saw this self-sacriﬁce as fully justiﬁed, part and parcel of what it
meant to do one’s job well: [The CEO job] is an all-consuming
thing. And I think that, if you don’t see it as an all-consuming
thing, it’s diﬃcult to get the job done [Richard]. Similarly, while
they saw the impossibility of ever detaching from work thoughts
as a heavy demand, they spoke of it with the undertone of a
needed sacriﬁce, a conﬁrmation of their fulﬁlling their duty in an
exemplary manner. I rarely ever shut oﬀ my mind to what’s going
on in the business. [. . .] you’re always thinking about what’s the
next horizon, what are we doing, do we have the right people in
the team [Larry]. In the same manner suggestive of self-sacriﬁce,
they described the loss of quality family time as their mind stayed
in the oﬃce: For me, coming home [. . .] there’s really not, as
much as anybody would tell you there’s sort of an ‘oﬀ ’ button,
there really is not an ‘oﬀ’ button. It just goes on [Anthony].
They admitted to trying to create the appearance of being fully
present at family dinners or during holidays with loved ones while
actually mulling over issues at work: Even though it was meant
to be a vacation [. . .] I’d go and hide in the toilet because she
[interviewee’s wife] wouldn’t allow me to do this, and I would check
emails, right? [Richard].
The intensity of this “all-consuming” nature of the CEO job
was further accentuated when the interviewees felt the price they
paid sometimes went beyond giving up all of their mind space,
all of their family time, to sacriﬁcing their very self, and “losing”
who they really are: You realize you are just not yourself. And I see
that happening to all executives at some point in their life. Because
it’s a hard job [Bill]. What they suggested was that their CEO role
left little, if any, space for their personal, true self, an undertone
so much more earnest when coming from people at the top of
the corporate layers, conditioned to speak and think in positive,
managerialist terms: When you do this type of job, you are giving
up so many things about you, your life, who you are [Laura].
When attempting to further clarify what made their top
role all-consuming, our interviewees spoke of demands broadly
falling under two main themes: external demands and their own
demands from themselves as leaders.
External Demands: Delivering “The
This paper’s interviews were held during increasingly diﬃcult
times for major company CEOs. On the one hand, public
opinion was seeing corporations, as embodied by their CEOs,
as driven exclusively by proﬁts at the expense of society and
the environment (e.g., Girouard, 2018). On the other hand,
shareholders were growing impatient with regard to delivery
of short-term results and, as they held the CEOs largely
responsible for their companies’ performance, they tended to
decide to replace them quicker than before, with record CEO
turnover levels registered among S&P 500 companies (PWC,
2019). The fact that 2018 was the ﬁrst year in which disclosing
the “CEO pay ratio” became mandatory for public companies
in the United States, leading to public outcry and, for some
CEOs, to grueling sessions in Congress on the subject, did
not help. Although these topics were not explicitly discussed
with the CEOs in our sample, they were likely to represent a
salient background in their minds when the topic of external
demands placed on the CEO arose. Indeed the CEOs did
broadly allude to the unfriendly external environment: It’s a
very tricky time right now for public companies and I think
shareholder activism looks for. . .you know, under the guise of
value creation, they look for chinks in the armor. They look for
weaknesses [Anthony]. Our interviewees felt that the multiplicity
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FIGURE 1 | Final thematic map.
of stakeholder voices had dramatically increased over the past
decade, often clamoring for contradictory demands: There are
too many constituencies, this is a big public company so there’s
Wall Street, there’s the board, the shareholders, the employees, the
customers, [. . .] there’s the community part of the job, I mean it’s
sort of impossible [Richard].
The interviewees underlined that the pressure to deliver short-
term results had been increasing, at the expense of long-term
strategic thinking: They [analysts] are so much into the short term
results that you can’t get them to think about what you’re trying
to do over longer time horizons [Jack]. At the same time, they
expressed a realistic stance about how much it was in their power
to achieve success, contrary to inﬂated stakeholder perceptions
on this topic: Luck plays a big role in a company’s performance.
There is a perception of the CEO making or breaking it, when it’s
really a lot about luck [Thomas]. This humble view of their own
abilities, echoed by many of our interviewees (I cannot predict,
I mean I fail on predicting like our business level because I just,
I’ve been wrong so many times [Jason]), comes in stark contrast
with perceptions of today’s CEOs as markedly more narcissistic
not only than the general population but also than the corporate
chieftains of several decades ago (Hambrick and Wowak, 2012).
Despite the limits they saw to their abilities and power,
the CEOs knew that they were held universally accountable
for anything and everything happening in their vast, tens
of thousands-strong and globe-wide spread corporations. This
burden was not lightened by the fact that it aligned with their
own beliefs about a CEO’s responsibility: You’re accountable
for everything that happens in your business, your track record,
performance [. . .] And if we have an environmental issue
in China, I’m ultimately accountable, and I should be, that’s
what the role of the leader is [Larry]. The theme of the
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interviewees’ own expectations from themselves as leaders
represented another heavy demand.
Demands on Oneself as a Leader:
“Grace Under Pressure”
What arose as a source of internal pressure for our interviewees
was living up to their own high standards for how a
leader should behave, around sub-themes such as inspiring,
creating, and maintaining alignment and belief in a common
vision, empowering one’s teams, never showing weakness, and
especially having, showing, and using up immense stores
Inspiring one’s followers was seen as a key condition for
leading well as a CEO, qualitatively diﬀerently from leadership
in other roles: I’ve really learned, since becoming a CEO in
another company for a couple of years and then coming here,
that a big part of the top job is not just to communicate
with people, but actually to inspire them, to make them
believe in what we are putting together [Thomas]. How the
CEOs spoke about inspiring and creating alignment conjured
up the image of a continuous eﬀort by the leader, never
completed, burning massive amounts of personal energy: Even
people in a company with a purpose as clear as ours, which
you’d think they’d wake up every day ready to go get it,
but they feel all the weight and pressure and distractions and
frustrations, and they do have to be reminded periodically,
through my own energy and passion, that there’s a larger
purpose here [James].
Energy was seen as crucial by many of our CEOs, not only
as a personal resource that gets heavily tapped into by the
demands of the job but also as the very blood ﬂowing through
the organization’s veins, a sine qua non for the organization’s
success: We’re making commitments, I blew mine up and put
it on my oﬃce door so people can see what I’m focusing on.
Number one is, that I commit that I’m going to manage the
organization’s energy. Are we inspiring [. . .]? [Thomas]. Similarly,
the interviewees believed that they allocated large amounts of
energy to achieving the diﬃcult task of truly empowering their
teams. Empowering, giving one’s employees the space to take
their own initiatives and make their own mistakes, is seen
by academia and practice alike as one of the basic elements
of good leadership, something one would expect to master
early on in one’s leadership journey (e.g., Kouzes and Posner,
2017). This made the CEOs’ confessions about how diﬃcult
they actually found this in practice all the more powerful: I
need to do a better job of letting them do it. And letting them
experience without my involvement. [. . .] And it’s hard, I mean
there’s times when I just want to jump in and grab the wheel.
Because I can see, I can see that what they are doing is not going
to work [Bill].
The CEOs expected of themselves to constantly control their
emotions so as not to show weakness such as doubt, worry,
or discouragement (or, as Susan put it in mantra-like form,
show grace under pressure and never let them see you sweat).
They saw the role of the leader as projecting unabated calm
and conﬁdence in the most diﬃcult of crises: I never told
anybody I was scared, but I was scared. Because I wasn’t really
sure what to do. [. . .] Your team doesn’t want to hear you
say you’re scared. They want to hear you are not scared. That
everything is going to be OK [Bill]. Although a discourse on the
power of owning up to vulnerability has increasingly become
popular in the corporate world and several of our CEOs actually
referred to the value of showing vulnerability, they conscripted
this notion to a well-deﬁned range of emotions and self-
disclosure that would not include, for example, showing doubt,
exhaustion, or fear despite their experiencing these emotions in
their leadership role. The CEOs also demanded of themselves
to maintain unwavering belief in the long-term vision, even in
the absence of tangible progress: It always takes longer than
what one thinks it’s going to take, and as it takes time you begin
to doubt yourself [...] as in ‘are we not getting there as fast
as we should’ because maybe I’m not right? Maybe I’m missing
something here [James]. In sum, they fell prey to “romance of
leadership” notions (Bligh et al., 2011) by expecting of themselves
to be supremely and unwaveringly inspiring, energetic, and
optimistic leaders, although they had earlier criticized similarly
romantic expectations of external stakeholders regarding a
CEO’s power to single-handedly determine the results of
We next connect the “all-consuming” nature of the CEO job
and the related themes of external and self-inﬂicted pressure, with
the key theme of stress and mental health risk.
Impact of CEOs’ Job Demands on Mental
Health: “A Good Chance of Cracking”
Most of our serious leisurite CEOs spoke about the impact
that this “all-consuming” nature of the CEO job could have
on their levels of stress only indirectly, when they illustrated
how their serious leisure protected them against signiﬁcant risks
in this respect. However, a telling illustration of how serious
stress levels can become in the absence of an outlet such as
practicing serious leisure was oﬀered by Laura, who, at the time
of our interview, had just re-started practicing horse riding,
a life-long passion, after several years of pausing it in order
to dedicate herself completely to her (ﬁrst-time) CEO role,
as she realized that reconnecting with her serious leisure had
become a matter of survival [Laura]: I got to a point where
I’m thinking about work 100% of the time. I’m actually almost
not sleeping anymore. Similarly, Richard described a particularly
diﬃcult period as: Stress was so big that I would sleep very,
very poorly. Other CEOs preferred to speak about excess stress
as a general risk of the job rather than their own experience,
a chilling reminder of how serious the mental health risk of
the top job could become in the absence of resources such
as those brought by serious leisure: The board members [. . .]
they are aware that you need recovery, you need some balance,
they don’t want to ﬁnd you one day with a gun on the top
ﬂoor [Thomas]. I think that if you don’t have something like
this [a serious leisure interest] you have a very good chance of
Among the beneﬁts our CEOs found in their serious leisure
interest, two main themes emerged, which are connected to the
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subject of responding to the demands of the CEO job: ﬁrst,
serious leisure as freedom from the CEO role and, second, serious
leisure as a fountain of personal resources.
Serious Leisure as Freedom From the
Our interviewees spoke about their passionate non-work interests
as a precious source of freedom from the “all-consuming” CEO
role. They consistently identiﬁed their serious leisure as the only
activity able to bring them detachment from work thoughts:
When I was going through this diﬃcult [work] situation, not that
long ago, I was actually surprised, like, when I practiced tennis [. . .]
that I was gone, I was gone, I was really. . .So it takes your mind oﬀ.
And it’s much better than taking drugs or getting drunk [Paul].
While the fact that leisure can oﬀer detachment from work
rumination is hardly surprising, what the CEOs underlined was
that no other non-work activity succeeded in oﬀering them
respite from job-related thoughts, which made serious leisure
unique: In other exercise that is non-competitive, non-team based,
oh, my mind immediately goes to work [Steven].
At a deeper, more latent level, the CEOs seemed to need their
leisure to be “serious” in order to balance the drive to sacriﬁce
their whole time and mind space to work. A serious leisure
interest, through the intensity of the activity and the “pull” the
passion for it exerted upon its practitioners, would be the only
one able to “force” the CEOs to dedicate time to it and to forget
all about work while doing so: It [woodwork] forces you to take
your mind oﬀ, oﬀ that employee who had a problem, oﬀ that board
discussion. . .it quiets your mind that way [Thomas]. What I like
about ﬂying is that it takes so much concentration that you’re really
not able to think about anything else [Bill].
The CEOs sometimes spoke of serious leisure as “me time,” a
rare occasion for them to enjoy doing something for themselves,
away from the duties of their role: I do [greeting cards] over
the weekend, I typically open a bottle of wine, I light a candle
and, you know, I come into my den and I spend an hour or
two making cards. It’s my release, my hobby, there’s no one here,
no interruptions. And it’s very peaceful [Robert], but when job
demands became even more intense, nearing burnout, such as in
Laura’s case, Would I do the same thing (take the CEO job) again?
I probably wouldn’t actually. [. . .] Because it’s very diﬃcult, or at
an earlier time in Richard’s CEO life, their serious leisure became
more than “me time,” a “safe haven”: This [soccer] was like a safe
haven [. . .] it’s like the one safe place where I think the stress, you
know, it’s sort of helped control things [Richard].
For Laura, her horse riding was a safe haven not only due to
the rare peace of mind it oﬀered but also because it represented
a separate world where one could freely express oneself away
from the constraints and the pressures of the CEO role: This is
my world. This is my world. The horses, the horse world is my
world [Laura]. Many of our CEOs subscribed to this view of their
serious leisure as a separate place for self-expression, a place to
re-aﬃrm that “true self” they had felt was being crowded out by
the all-encompassing CEO role: The second I got back on stage, I
felt like I was home again, said Anthony who, after taking a long
break from performing in public as a singer–songwriter, ﬁnally
decided to restart performing (for charity) while CEO of a major
listed company. In this separate place, our interviewees cherished
not being seen as CEOs, speciﬁcally in order to reaﬃrm their
value as individuals outside the CEO role: The minute you walk
in, everyone’s the same [. . .] And for a long time, most people didn’t
know what I did, which was awesome! [Mary].
Some of our interviewees went further in the self-reﬂection
exercise occasioned by our talk and identiﬁed the crucial
importance of a non-work passion as “another leg to stand
on,” a way to diversify from the overpowering CEO identity
so that they would not take setbacks in their work role as a
disastrous reﬂection on their whole self-worth: I’ve had massive
disappointments in my business life, was massively disappointed
about my results. [...] And that’s where I believe, to have a second
leg to stand on, to have another life outside of your profession, I
think that’s so important, to get through those valleys. You screw
up something in your business life [. . .] but then you go “well,
I’m not a failure! I screwed up here yet as a person I’m not a
failure, because I know I’m a pretty good painter! I’m a pretty
good. . .whatever, right? [Paul]. Being able to deﬁne themselves
through more than the CEO persona, speciﬁcally through a self-
enhancing, positive identity such as that provided by a serious
leisure interest, thus oﬀered another dimension of welcome
freedom from the CEO role.
While much of what has been presented so far regarding
serious leisure’s beneﬁts has referred to mitigating the strain
arising from the CEO’s job demands, the interviewees also saw the
“freedom from the CEO role” oﬀered by their serious leisure as a
source of personal resources that promote optimal functioning in
the demanding CEO role. I’d rather spend more time away from
work in order to do a better job at work, said Jason, pointing to the
quality of his decision making, as well as his creativity: I think it’s
just important to have something else. Because I can’t process just
linearly doing work, I need some other stimulus [Jason].
However, the CEOs also believed that their serious leisure
directly created a wealth of personal resources that were needed
to respond to their own expectations about performance in
the leader role.
Serious Leisure as a Fountain of
One of the strongest beneﬁts of serious leisure that the CEOs
identiﬁed was its ability to renew and increase their “energy.” I
interpret their understanding of “energy” as broadly similar with
the concept of psychological capital, which is also consistent with
recent Psycap studies (Rego et al., 2019). However, to stay close to
the interviewees’ voices, I will continue to use the term “energy”
throughout this paper. The CEOs found a strong source of energy
in practicing their serious leisure and, as mentioned earlier, they
considered having and giving energy as a sine qua non for leaders:
If you, as a leader, aren’t able to ﬁnd that right balance yourself,
and always be able to create energy and focus your own energy,
and conserve your energy, then at some point in time, it’s inevitably
going to impact the organization you’re leading. So that’s the big
role the music plays, it feeds me in terms of making me happy,
or allow me to release tension, it’s just, it recreates positive energy
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[James]. They often realized how important their serious leisure
was to their energy levels especially when they were forced to slow
it down: A year and a half back there was a two-month period
when my running actually dropped because we were in the middle
of a couple of big acquisitions. [. . .] That actually, I realized,
impacted me because I didn’t feel that energetic [Kenneth].
This energy was associated with the intense joy our
interviewees found in their serious leisure. Asked what ice
hockey brought him, Steven illustrated a full trajectory of
positive emotions, from anticipation to enjoyment to happiness
to optimism: I’d go with joy! Driving to it, I look very much forward
to getting there and thoroughly enjoying myself throughout. [. . .] I
am a happier person when I have ﬁnished the hockey game and
showered up and got into my car, I am ready for whatever comes
next [Steven]. I just love golf, says Kevin playfully and he repeats
it 27 (!) times during our interview.
Our CEOs’ energy boost also came from feeling proud of
their achievements in their serious leisure pursuits. These men
and women who command corporate empires do ﬁnd a special
sense of pride and mastery in their personal pursuits, and this
is not limited to the competitive, athletic pursuits either: So
when I inventory why I do it and what I get from it, I really get
tremendous satisfaction in the creation of a one-of-a-kind message
[on greeting cards]. I think, in some ways, people think my business
success is the thing I’ll be most remembered for. I don’t think so,
although we were very successful. I think it will be the sticker
cards [Robert]. About his woodwork hobby, Thomas beamed:
It does give me a sense of pride, I have sometimes even sold
some of the things I made, auctioned them for charity [Thomas].
As earlier mentioned, this self-aﬃrming serious leisure identity
can play a unique role in oﬀering “diversiﬁcation” from the
overpowering CEO identity.
Our interviewees saw their serious leisure as fostering
creativity [It gives me that time to let my mind somewhat wander
[. . .] and it’s amazing because problems that I didn’t think that
I could solve, some sort of new insight will come to me (Susan)]
and sharpening their “mental agility”: If in a particular month
instead of 200 miles I run 75 miles, then that month is not a good
month. I don’t feel good. [. . .] If there are sustained periods when
I’m unable to actually do that level of physical activity, I ﬁnd my
mental activity and mental agility do down, says Kenneth, thus
distinguishing between mere exercise and the superior powers of
his serious leisure in oﬀering the mental agility required by the
demands of the CEO job.
Kenneth’s belief in the special value of a 200-miles-per-month
regime exempliﬁes the multitude of narrative, metaphorical
sensemaking that our interviewees engaged in, regarding the
abilities of their serious leisure to support them in meeting the
demands of their role. From an “objective” standpoint, the value
of more moderate exercise (say, 100 miles per month) for mental
agility and energy level could be judged as higher than more
“extreme” exercise alternatives. However, what is important here
is the story Kenneth tells himself regarding the unique value of
those 200 miles per month. Another such narrative several of the
CEOs told themselves was that their serious leisure had taught
them that consistency of eﬀort leads to results. They found that
they successfully applied this lesson in their leader role where, as
we have seen, they saw belief in the long-term plan and vision as
a crucial part of leading as a CEO. Thus, using what their serious
leisure had taught them, the CEOs moved their focus from the
uncertain results of their long-term strategy (says Laura: when
my people are talking about numbers, money, turnover, I say ‘Don’t
bother about this. This is the outcome of good work’) to the more
controllable input: There’s this discipline where you keep doing it
with the belief that eventually it will pay oﬀ. For the Death Ride
[. . .] my goal was to ﬁnish in under 9 h of ride time. So I mapped
that, the training of that, for months. [. . .] And the ride was then,
on a 9-h ride, I was within 3 min of what I had planned. [. . .]
With work it’s the same way. A lot of the projects that you do have
to be over a long period of time, so this consistency of eﬀort, the
metrics that you have, I think the mindset is very similar” [Jason],
or as Larry put it: [football] teaches you, if you train and develop
every day in the grind, and if you do the right things, success will
eventually come [Larry].
Thus, the CEOs found that the regular eﬀort they put in their
serious leisure helped them get a sense of control in the midst of
uncertainty. As Jason continued: I got into cycling right after the
ﬁnancial downturn. And a lot of it was: ‘I can control this! I cannot
control the world, but I can control how I exercise. And I need some
level of control over something’. And this job, there’s so much that
you. . .I don’t know what kind of trade war we are going to start.
I’ve no idea, but I do know that, that part of it, having some control
over something [Jason].
Similarly, Bill believed that during a “scary,” crisis time in a
former CEO position, his sports mindset came to the rescue by
reminding him to focus on what he could control, his own eﬀort:
I was taught never to give up. I was taught that you work as hard as
you can, as fast as you can, until the coach takes you oﬀ the ﬁeld. So
I woke up every morning and I thought to myself ’the coach hasn’t
taken me out yet. So I am going to go and do the very best I can.
And if what I’m doing is not good enough [...] then the coach should
make a change. If I’m not eﬀective as [name of company]’s leader
[...] then obviously they should change it. [...] But until they tell me
that, I’m going to do the best I can [Bill].
The CEOs also believed that their serious leisure had educated
in them and helped them maintain the “mental toughness” that
is required to withstand the pressure of the top job, especially
when self-doubt beckons: Athletics teaches you how to persevere
[. . .] you have to be able to deal with the setbacks and pitfalls
and. . .life is not perfect, how to recalibrate, rethink what you’re
doing. [. . .] Because if you can’t overcome mentally the challenges,
you are not going to be successful. I don’t talk about mental
toughness in business, maybe I should [...] how do you build your
mind to overcome that self-doubt; and everybody has self-doubt
[Larry]. As Mary said: Conﬁdence to me breeds resilience, and
resilience then means that you can withstand a level of pressure that
other people may not [. . .] [Martial arts] is deﬁnitely a conﬁdence
In conclusion, our interviewees believed that their serious
leisure helped them cope with the strain caused by the intense
demands of the CEO job by oﬀering them freedom from the CEO
role and by creating a wealth of personal resources that would, in
turn, support them in rising to their own standards of leadership
in the job. Table 2 presents additional support for these ﬁndings.
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TABLE 2 | Themes, sub-themes, and illustrative quotes.
CEO role is “all-consuming”
Can never detach “This job can be very time-consuming and all-consuming [. . .] You talk to a lot of CEOs, you’ve been one, it’s all-encompassing” [Larry].
“You’re always, always, always thinking about work” [Richard].
Risk of “losing
“The whole thing is, I’m actually a very private person and [. . .] I did not want myself to be the center of attention [. . .] and reality is, there’s a
price you pay for that, right?” [Richard].
“Sometimes I think I should have stayed in coaching and teaching” [Larry].
“The board does have an expectation that is fully justiﬁed, that you are fully committed to the job and that you’ll be there for it” [Thomas].
“The amount of responsibility you have is fundamentally different than other people’s” [Mary].
“In the US they tend to have shorter time frames. And expect instantaneous results. And if you’re not successful within a short period of time
you get ﬁred” [Richard].
“It’s funny, we talk about shareholders, I think that it’s a mythical shareholder. Because the actual shareholders don’t tend to hold stock for very
long [. . .] But in the company you really try to optimize for the longer-term shareholder, which is a theoretical idea” [Jason].
“The external stakeholders, the analysts, are pretty critical to the CEO, they’re really your customers and you’ve got to treat them like
customers. [. . .] Because they can tear you down a lot faster if they choose to” [Larry].
Demands on oneself as a leader
“You need to develop an inner conﬁdence that ‘hey, it may not feel good right now, it may not feel like it’s going the way I wanted,’ just give it
some time!” [James].
“From the time that you make the investment until you see the positive ﬁnancial result it’s sort of a minimum of a 5-year time frame, and you
have to sort of be very strong in your conviction” [Richard].
“When you become a CEO you have to rely completely on yourself, to motivate yourself, to motivate your company, your clients and everyone
around you. And that’s totally on you” [Mary].
“If you want to control chaos [. . .] ﬁnd that purposeful power within yourself, that gives you that true ‘sense of grace”’/“Under that stress, under
those situations, to remain calm, to just kind of set your stride and keep moving” [Susan]. “Everybody has self-doubt. The big part for me is,
when you feel like that, and we all do, periodically, you can’t portray that in the organization, you have to keep that same strong approach”
Align followers with
“Alignment is the single most underrated success factor of leadership and you don’t get, you can’t fake alignment, you’ve got to earn it, and I
think many CEOs and leaders don’t fully appreciate that” [James].
Lead with intense
“I’m a big believer in energy management. [. . .] energy has a big correlation with your results and impact” [Paul].
“One of the most important things that any leader does [. . .] is how they create energy for the organization and how they focus and manage the
energy of the organization. And if you, as a leader, aren’t able to ﬁnd that right balance yourself, and always be able to create energy and focus
your own energy and conserve your energy, then at some point in time it’s inevitably going to impact the organization you’re leading” [James].
Empower “One of the changes I had to make, which was difﬁcult but necessary, was [. . .] change the leadership to go to the next generation of the
leaders underneath me [. . .] So then, how do you change in terms of areas that you can provide guidance with, and yet how do you not let go
so much that they make mistakes, or what I perceive as mistakes” [Jason].
Stress, (mental) health risk
“The CEO job is very stressful” [Richard].
“I’m not sure it’s helping to be a public company CEO for too long because it’s not the most. . .it’s a stressful environment” [Bill].
“Stress management, right, in these jobs, if you aren’t ﬁt, it takes a toll, and it takes a hard toll” [Jason].
“I will ride three times this week, there are only those 3 hours when I’m absolutely not thinking about work. Which I think is completely required.
It’s almost a survival decision for me right now” [Laura].
Serious leisure as freedom from the CEO role
Unique detachment “Even if I’m stressed out about anything that’s going on at work, and I have a lot on my mind going into [martial arts] class, by the end of class
my mind has just kind of released itself, because once you start class, you really don’t think about anything else! So it’s a very good way to
release the stress” [Mary].
“I started to ride more intensely again [...] a month ago, yeah, because I thought I need to do something that would really help me to. . . It’s
almost like meditation, you know, when you ride. [...] When you ride you can’t think about something else. It’s impossible” [Laura].
“Safe haven,” a
“I start out selﬁsh every single day [. . .] before life takes over in the day you start and do something for yourself” [Paul]. “Music is such a big part
of who I am, that if it meant playing at one in the morning, when everyone else is sleeping, and sitting at the piano for 45 min, I was totally ﬁne
with that” [Anthony].
“It is a very close-knit community because most people don’t understand what goes into coaching in time, commitment” [Larry].
It is “another leg to
“When I ﬂy, a very different person comes out” [Kevin].
“Because I have these other aptitudes, I can feel like I failed at something or I was disappointed in myself at something without feeling like a
failure [. . .] because our stock dropped on a certain day, I can feel disappointed in how I handled it, but I don’t doubt my value as a human,
because I know that I’m a composite sketch of a lot of things of which this is a very important part, but not the whole me” [Anthony].
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TABLE 2 | Continued
Serious leisure as a fountain of personal resources
Energy “When I have ﬁnished the hockey game and showered up and got into my car, I am ready for whatever comes next” [Steven].
“It gives me a lot of energy” [Mary].
Joy “The actual creation of a card is maybe my greatest personal pleasures” [Robert].
“It gives me a great, great deal of happiness. So I’m really happy when I’m ﬂying an airplane and I’m also happy with the anticipation of ﬂying an
airplane. So it gives me something to look forward to and it’s a real joy, it’s a real pleasure” [Bill].
Makes me feel
good about myself
“It [ﬂying] also gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment, I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to do that. It makes me feel good about
“Not many people have a pilot’s license and I just like the idea of being able to do something that most people on the planet can’t do” [Kevin].
“I am an engineer by education and I like making things and creating things. And in this job it’s obviously more about inspiring others but I miss
the creativity part. And the woodwork, that’s what it brings back, and sometimes after doing it I ﬁnd my creative juices ﬂow more freely”
Discipline, sense of
“I’ve always felt I was a very good planner, that I was very good at anticipating things, and I really think my experience with ﬂying has really,
either developed that, or made it stronger” [Bill].
“It gives you that freedom, that sense of purposeful power [. . .] that true sense of control” [Susan].
“I’m running, biking, I’m working really hard and it’s kind of pushing to the limit and pushing kind of beyond what I think I can achieve, and that
will go over to work” [Susan].
“I’ve always thought that golf was, in some ways, symbolic of life. [...] I think that, to get through a round of golf, it’s mainly mental. [. . .] I think
the biggest difference is the mental toughness and the ability to navigate all the things that happen to all of us, in real life” [Bill].
“When I think of music, it’s got some similarities [with my work]. There is no shortcut. Like, you can have musical aptitude, but you need to put
in the hours. You need to train” [Anthony].
This paper provides a rare glimpse inside top CEOs’ sensemaking
with regard to the demands of their job as well as a ﬁrst
exploration of how a speciﬁc use of their limited spare time,
engaging in serious leisure, helps them cope with those demands.
Our ﬁndings are noteworthy not only because CEOs’ mental
health and optimal functioning are important to their own
organizations but also because major company CEOs often
represent role models for (aspiring) leaders throughout the
corporate world. Moreover, for many of our interviewees,
their practice of their serious leisure interest started long
before they became CEOs, and their beliefs regarding the
power of their serious leisure to create valuable resources are
also grounded in memories from these earlier times and less
senior leadership roles, which makes our ﬁndings relevant
also for the broader study of leaders’ mental health and
This study’s ﬁndings bring up several important novel insights
that contribute to research on the buﬀering role of detachment
from work and personal resources on the impact high
job demands have on stress to the upper echelon (and
speciﬁcally executive job demands) literature, to research on
leaders’ personal resources, and to studies of work recovery
First, while research has documented that psychological
detachment from work (Sonnentag et al., 2010) helps buﬀer
the strain brought by high job demands, the present study
contributes to this literature a rare view of how, when it
comes to CEOs, they perceive their serious leisure as one
of the few non-work activities (if not the only one) that
can achieve this beneﬁcial eﬀect of detachment, given the
“chronic” activation of their CEO identity. Moreover, recent
views are that “constellations of recovery experiences” will
likely yield more than the sum of their parts (Bennett
et al., 2016, p. 1635), yet there is little empirical research
focusing on combinations of recovery experiences rather than
on the eﬀects of distinct recovery experiences (such as only
psychological detachment or only mastery). This study shows
how serious leisure can provide a potent such combination as
all ﬁve main recovery experiences identiﬁed by prior research
(psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, control, and
enjoyment) (Sonnentag and Fritz, 2007) are present in our
interviewees’ accounts: thus, the “freedom from the CEO
role” category contains important psychological detachment
elements as well as relaxation elements (related to the “me
time” and “safe haven” themes), while the “personal resources”
category includes enjoyment, “feeling good about oneself,” an
indication of the experiences of mastery provided by serious
leisure and the “sense of control” that comes with putting in
consistent and measurable eﬀort for measurable results. This
paper also ﬁnds that serious leisure creates powerful personal
resources not only indirectly, through the recovery experiences
it oﬀers, but also directly, through the stories our CEOs tell
to themselves about their serious leisure’s power to develop
a mindset of “mental toughness,” of discipline, and of belief
that consistency of eﬀort leads to results. As leisure research
indicates, beliefs about the stress-coping and ﬂourishing beneﬁts
of one’s leisure are essential for these beneﬁts to actually occur
and act independently from what the actual engagement in
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leisure provides (Iwasaki, 2003). However, as these studies
did not focus on serious leisure, these beliefs were limited
to what casual/general leisure is thought to oﬀer. As serious
leisure is a passionate pursuit that its practitioners internalize
as a strong personal identity and therefore a rich source of
meaning (Allen-Collinson and Hockey, 2007;Falcous, 2017),
they are bound to construct stronger and broader beliefs around
it compared to casual leisure. Moreover, since the CEO job
represents another salient role for our interviewees, according
to the role enrichment theory, they will be motivated to
transfer resources generated in serious leisure to the CEO role
(Greenhaus and Powell, 2006). Our study brings a rare insight
into how the strong serious leisure identity promotes CEOs’
meaning making around their serious leisure as a provider of
abundant resources and its role in their optimal functioning
in the CEO role.
Second, our study identiﬁes how serious leisure can represent
an antecedent of leader psychological capital (Luthans and
Youssef-Morgan, 2017) that itself has been shown to correlate
with follower performance (Chen, 2015) and follower work
engagement (Xu et al., 2017). As recent research shows, conveyed
leader psychological capital (also broadly referred to as “energy”)
is especially powerful in generating positive follower outcomes
and, at the same time, is most eﬀective when aligned with the
leader’s own perceptions of their psychological capital (Rego
et al., 2019). This paper’s insights show not only how CEOs
see the importance of conveying high personal energy to their
employees but also how they believe that their passionate interests
play a key role in helping them recover and increase their
Third, what the interviewees perceived as “freedom from
the CEO role” oﬀered by their serious leisure referred not
only to its unique powers of detachment but also to its
ability to oﬀer “diversiﬁcation” from an over-investment in the
CEO identity or, in the words of one of our interviewees,
“another leg to stand on.” A positive identity, not related to
the other identities the individual has, increases the individual’s
positive self-complexity, buﬀering their well-being when they
are confronted with negative events in one of their other
roles (Linville, 1987). Individuals high in self-complexity have
a greater tolerance for frustration (Gramzow et al., 2000),
have lower aﬀective reactivity, and cope better with negative
events (Koch and Shepperd, 2004) as setbacks in one of their
valued roles (such as the CEO role) do not spill over to their
whole self. Given the importance our interviewees attached
to the CEO’s always being calm, optimistic, and in control,
serious leisure thus proves to be a unique asset through the
positive, agentic identity it creates and that casual leisure
pursuits cannot oﬀer.
Fourth, this paper responds to the call formulated by
Hambrick et al. (2005a) who, after introducing the concept of
executive job demands, saw it as a promising arena not only for
organizational theorists but also for organizational behavior and
applied psychology researchers focusing on the individual level.
However, little, if any, empirical studies have since attempted to
look inside the “black box” of executive job demands as perceived
by the executives themselves. This study responds to this call
by contributing a thick description of how the executives at
the top of the pyramid, CEOs of large companies, perceive the
demands of their job as arising both from external factors and
from their own standards of leadership in the top job and how
they reconcile the need for freedom from the CEO role with
the duty that they feel to sacriﬁce their time, energy, and “true
selves” to it by constructing their serious leisure as, on one hand,
“forcing” them to break free from the CEO role and, on the other
hand, supporting their top job by creating important personal
resources. The CEOs in our sample perceived that they were
sacriﬁcing their whole personal, waking, and sleeping life for the
larger-than-life CEO role, while at the same time they intuited the
risks to their mental and physical health of doing so. Illustrating
the well-worn adage “work hard, play hard,” they thus seemed
to see their “play” interest as an equally intense and passionate
counterbalance to the overpowering nature of the CEO role.
This study also holds several practical implications for top
executives and their boards. First, although CEOs appreciate that,
like any human, they need some downtime to recover from work,
they allow very little time for leisure in their agendas (Lees,
2018). Thus, the question becomes, what type of leisure activity
would be (a) a strong enough motivator to pry their hands away
from the corporate steering wheel (that they otherwise cannot
let go of or, at least, cannot stop worrying about, even when
with friends or family) for the time needed for adequate recovery
and (b) the most potent in terms of resource restoration and
creation. A serious leisure interest that, as Jason put it, “forces
a discipline to not always be working” seems to be one of the
answers to this question. Thus, in the quest for optimizing their
personal resources, CEOs would do well to consider reconnecting
with a long-lost non-work interest they had once held dear or
looking for a new one while staying aware that the motivation
for developing it into serious leisure should come from within,
from the joy and passion it ignites, not from instrumental
reasons. For large company boards, paying attention to the
CEO’s mental health is critical. While many of our interviewees
mentioned that their boards had recommended that they work
less or take more time oﬀ, there is little actionable content
in these recommendations. Even when more speciﬁc, such as
“get a hobby,” a familiar entreaty to over-committed executives,
such a recommendation has had little research support so far.
“Take a vacation,” another staple of well-intended advice to
workaholics, may not always work, as exempliﬁed by our CEOs’
confessions as they continue to ruminate about work (if not
engage in work outright through online channels), only now in a
changed scenery. Moreover, the recovery eﬀect of vacations has
been shown to be short-lived, with stress and burnout quickly
returning to pre-vacation levels once employees are back at work
(Sonnentag et al., 2017). It would also be desirable that, in the
spirit of risk management that boards are acutely aware of, such
recommendations should prevent rather than treat: while serious
leisure is seen as a strong builder of resources against burnout,
starting out in a serious leisure pursuit may be stressful in itself
and take considerable time, possibly with some false starts as one
identiﬁes one’s true passion and typically with a steep learning
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curve for the pursuit’s speciﬁc skill, not something one would
want to undertake when in or nearing work-related burnout.
Thus, we hope to have oﬀered company boards useful insights
into how passionate hobbies can help over and above other
recovery activities so that such future nudging of their CEOs can
be timelier and more speciﬁc.
Limitations and Future Research
As with all qualitative research, our study makes no claims
to statistical generalizability. However, it is notable that the
interviewed CEOs had relatively homogeneous views on the
topics discussed, with the key themes being representative of
all interviews. Where diﬀerences appeared, they were more of
degree than of nature: for example, Laura identiﬁed higher levels
of strain and of job demands than the other CEOs, but not
qualitatively diﬀerent components of either job demands or
strain. This convergence of views would probably not surprise
the CEOs themselves as several of them referred to the job
of a large company CEO as posing speciﬁc challenges, thus
suggesting at the same time similarity inside the “in-group” and
distinctiveness from other types and levels of executive jobs.
Moreover, it is possible that the fact that the interviewees are all
“serious leisurites” may mean that they are more similar along
certain traits (such as, for instance, conscientiousness) which may
impact how they perceive strain and job demands (Hambrick
et al., 2005a). All of the above suggest that outright generalization
of this paper’s ﬁndings outside the population of large company
CEOs who have a serious leisure interest would not be advisable.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of serious leisurite top CEOs
is signiﬁcant and growing, with over 10% of the CEOs of
S&P 500 companies publicly known to have a serious leisure
interest (Bunea et al., 2018), which, when adding the “silent”
serious leisurite CEOs whose passionate non-work interest may
have not (yet) attracted the media’s attention, probably puts
the total percentage signiﬁcantly higher. These individuals lead
some of the largest companies worldwide and there are arguably
thousands of individuals worldwide whose aspirations involve
becoming CEO of an S&P 500 company. A thick description
of these CEOs’ sensemaking around their serious leisure and
their job demands is therefore valuable in itself in terms of
its contribution to management research. However, this paper’s
contribution may be larger as the thick qualitative insights it
brings into these CEOs’ leadership and job demand challenges
and constructions may foster representational generalization
(Lewis, 2014), a type of non-statistical generalization that can be
reached when the qualitative ﬁndings resonate with the reader’s
own, direct or vicarious, experiences or, in our case, when an
executive who is not a large company CEO would recognize their
own engagement in life’s aﬀairs in (some of) this study’s ﬁndings.
Our study does not dwell on gender issues, given the low
representation of female CEOs in our sample (as indeed among
all S&P 500 companies). However, serious leisure research shows
that women have diﬃculty in accessing serious leisure due to the
gendered expectations of their other role partners (Raisborough,
2006), as well as to the often masculine, exclusionist culture
surrounding many leisure pursuits (Anderson and Taylor, 2010).
Future research could focus on women leaders and their serious
leisure and on the speciﬁc strategies they use or have used to gain,
from others and from themselves, the right to have an ostensibly
“selﬁsh” avocational interest.
In our study, we aimed to use a broad lens, without
diﬀerentiating between types of serious leisure (such as sports vs.
music or arts and crafts) and focusing instead on the common
themes brought up in our interviews. Leisure research has shown
that attempting taxonomies based on “objective” characteristics
of various types of leisure is not desirable as what unites various
leisure interests is how they are experienced by the participant
rather than externally observable characteristics (Banner, 1985).
Indeed our study shows that the fact that these apparently very
distinct interests are experienced by our interviewees similarly,
leading to strong identiﬁcation and feelings of mastery, self-
expression, self-actualization, and joy, means that what they share
is stronger than what diﬀerentiates them. Still it is undeniable
that, for example, sports have speciﬁc physical beneﬁts for
work recovery, and therefore we can beneﬁt from dedicated
future explorations of how sports practiced as serious leisure
beneﬁt leaders’ coping with their job demands. One should tread
carefully though as what diﬀerentiates serious leisure is precisely
the fact that it is freely chosen and intrinsically motivated, and
therefore any attempt to recommend speciﬁc types of activities,
such as sports, to be practiced as serious leisure by leaders
could lead to increasing, instead of decreasing, the overall strain
experienced by the leader.
This study has explored serious leisure participants’ perceptions
with regard to how their non-work passion supports them in
responding to the demands of their job at a rarely accessed level:
CEOs of large companies. Its ﬁndings oﬀer new insights into how
serious leisurite CEOs perceive the demands of their job as arising
both from external and from self-inﬂicted pressure and how they
believe that their serious leisure plays two distinct and uniquely
valuable roles in helping them respond to these demands: one in
oﬀering them freedom from the overpowering CEO role and the
other one in helping them build strong personal resources needed
to rise up to their own expectations of leadership in the top role.
Responding to calls for more empirical investigations of CEOs’
emotions and cognitions, we hope to spark further interest in the
speciﬁc, growing phenomenon of top leaders’ serious leisure, to
the beneﬁt of tomorrow’s leaders and organizations.
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The datasets generated for this study are not openly available due
to strict participant privacy conditions. Requests to access these
datasets should be directed to the author email@example.com.
Ethical review and approval was not required for the study on
human participants in accordance with the local legislation and
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Bunea Grace Under Pressure
institutional requirements. The patients/participants provided
their written informed consent to participate in this study.
The author conﬁrms being the sole contributor of this work and
has approved it for publication.
This manuscript has beneﬁtted from the insightful guidance and
support of Dr. Evgenia Lysova and prof. Dr. Svetlana Khapova
of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. I am also grateful to the
CEOs participating in this study for the gift of their time and
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