Jack Ma is clearly a reformed man. After maintaining for years that people need to work 12 hours a day, six days a week (the infamous 996 formula), the Chinese tycoon now says that in the future, 12-hour work weeks may be enough. His great sparring rival Elon Musk, though, is sticking to his stand of 80-100-hour work weeks. Regardless of what they prescribe to others, both men are known to keep punishing hours at work.

It is the way of all CEOs. A Harvard Business Review study published last year said that US CEOs work 9.7 hours per weekday, and another 3.9 hours per weekend day. Add to that the work they put in during their vacations, and it is easy to conclude that they truly punish themselves for having got to the top.

Indian CEOs are no slouches in this matter either. A survey of 357 CEOs of listed Indian manufacturing firms by economic research outfit International Growth Centre revealed that the average Indian CEO works 39 hours a week. In the services sector, the numbers could well be higher, which would mean most bosses are on the job for close to 8-9 hours a weekday.

Indeed, working long hours seems to be a badge of honour among CEOs today. Far from being inspiring, such dedication to duty is enough to induce a deep sense of nostalgia for the good old days when ascension to the top job in a company was seen as a licence to chill. You slogged half your life to get to a position from where the golf swing or the upcoming Mediterranean holiday could be given more attention.

The leisure took many different forms. The CEO of a large liquor firm in Kolkata (then still a colonial-era laced Calcutta) spent his entire mornings playing the newly minted computer game Pac-Man. Those who went to meet him in his vast, cavernous office on a crowded Calcutta street with Dutch antecedents were told off with an imperious wave of the hand, or at best asked to say their piece and get on their way. Nor did the said worthy take his eyes off the screen for a minute even as the offending visitor reeled off some disturbing news from the market. The slight wince or gleam of delight that lit up the big man’s eyes had more to do with the ghosts and dots on the screen than any change in the fortunes of the company.

Then there was a renowned CEO, coincidentally of another Kolkata-based conglomerate, who invited visitors over for meetings to his guest house in the capital where he proceeded to parley with them while still in his gym gear. Often, he would stretch himself out on a couch while the conversation proceeded at a leisurely pace in the middle of the day. Nothing about his demeanour suggested that the company’s office in the city was likely to witness his august presence that day.

It has to be said in all fairness that such parsimony with their working hours seemed to pay rich dividends for the companies they commandeered. Who is to say that their time wasn’t well spent?

In these dull times, even the off-office hours of top honchos seem to follow some kind of a regimen. Take a look at Mint’s weekly series “After hours with the boss". These men and women do such boring things as meditation and yoga after leaving office! On the job, it is just the grind.

In the good old days, one company founder had a special room built into his office where he retired every so often for a snooze. Indeed, in time-honoured Oriental fashion, the afternoon siesta, much favoured by the likes of US presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy and the UK’s “Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, were a regular feature of the corner office in pre-liberalization India. Very early in the still evolving liturgy of management jargon, these bosses had realized that the key to high-output leadership was the catnap. As sleep expert Mark Rosekind once said, “What other 26-minute investment gives you a 54% productivity boost?"

In the past, the precursor to the siesta was the long luxuriant lunch either at the golf club or the newest restaurant in town. In those days, of course, these last were few and far between, which meant that corporate chieftains who became regulars at a particular outlet were treated like royalty. Unfortunately, the reprehensible practice of some hotel chains to give unpronounceable European names to some of their properties often tripped up even the regulars. A legendary consumer electronics company owner once invited a journalist for lunch to something he called “Lord of the Shells". Even as the poor scribe went around in circles looking for the aforesaid place, realization dawned when he saw an inscription for a restaurant called “La Rochelle" (the predecessor to today’s 360°).

A personal favourite, though, was a Mumbai-based boss who greeted special friends with one of the finest collections of liquor ever seen in an office cabinet built to hold boring files. When questioned, he claimed it was to ensure that he was always in a state of readiness to celebrate corporate wins by his hard-working team. Either this was a complete lie and just an excuse for his little indulgence, or his stellar team scored big very frequently, since a lot of people came away from meeting him with smiles on their faces.

Those were the times, my friend, unthinkable in today’s austere, work-first era, where about the only let-up in a busy day is a few tweets of levity.

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