Achieving & sustaining peak performance


Simone Biles’ retreat from the Olympic Games this week reminds us that it takes more than just talent and hard work to succeed at the top. At just 24 years of age, the young Ms. Biles somehow understood that while she is at the apex of physicality and talent in her sport, her emotional, mental, and spiritual readiness were lacking. She knew that were she to continue in that state, she risked serious injury to herself and possibly the chance at a medal for the team.

Simone Biles, and other elite athletes such as NBA basketball player Steph Curry, tennis star Rodger Federer, and championship golfer Jordan Spieth, each have incredible talent and ability in their chosen sport. However, for them to be able to fully access their given talents and skills at the very moment of a match, game or tournament, they know that several key things need to be in place. They need to feel good physically as a result of enough sleep, rest (which is not the same as sleep), practice, and proper nutrition. They also need to feel in a good place emotionally and be clear minded, focused, and mentally alert. Lastly, they need to feel deeply connected to what the sport means to them and why they want to compete and win. Only when all of those conditions are in place can they deliver a peak performance.

Truth is that this doesn’t just apply to top athletes. Leadership, in many ways, is also like an intense contact sport. Every day, leaders need to fully access their talents and abilities to lead effectively. But unlike elite athletes, many leaders still hold on to the belief that success is the result of sheer brain power combined with time spent and superhuman effort. They glorify spending long working hours, getting by on little sleep and being always “on,” even outside of work hours.

By doing so, leaders ignore the empirical reality of the “performance pyramid,” a model for achieving peak performance developed by performance psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr based on extensive applied research. In his model, peak performance is achieved by optimizing a person’s energy across four levels of the performance pyramid: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Once a leader is able to proactively manage and optimize his or her energy across all four levels, he or she is able to achieve and sustain a high level of leadership effectiveness by fully accessing their talents and abilities, irrespective of surrounding circumstances.

In this article, we provide an overview of each level. You’ll see how each aspect of personal performance contributes to a leader’s effectiveness. By harnessing 100% of their talents and abilities under all circumstances, leaders can reach their fullest potential and maximize their leadership effectiveness.

Level 1: Optimize Your Physical Energy

It’s widely understood that physical energy is the foundation of all performance. However, too many of us equate physical fitness solely with “working out” and “sleeping enough.” In doing so, we overlook the fact that the quality of our physical energy is affected by the type, timing, and frequency of our exercise, the integration of rest (which is not the same as sleeping) and the make-up of our diet.

If you think this isn’t relevant to leaders, think again. Because the organ that requires the most energy is our brain – critical to any leader’s functioning.

In addition, being an effective leader requires emotional self-control under pressure and that too draws heavily on our physical energy. Just picture a toddler when they are tired – the smallest upset triggers them to “lose it.” Now consider all the emotions you experience as a leader on a daily basis. You need to remain sanguine despite those feelings. That requires an ample well of physical energy.

So, by skipping exercise, not taking time to eat well, and short-changing yourself on sleep and rest, you are not just being less healthy than you would ideally like to be – you are undermining your leadership effectiveness.

There are of course plenty of leaders who do succeed despite too little sleep, eating unhealthily and little exercise. However, their success is unsustainable and ultimately they will pay the price for not looking after their physical foundation – for example, by damaging key relationships because their exhaustion makes them emotionally volatile or by developing bad health problems that hinder their further career progress.

Level 2: Maintain Your Emotional Energy

Many leadership development models focus on emotional intelligence and self-awareness. In the context of Loehr’s pyramid, however, emotional energy refers to our state of mind, because how we feel greatly impacts our ability to access our talents and skills, and thus our effectiveness as a leader.

Picture it:

Remember how great you felt on Monday morning after having enjoyed a truly relaxing and fun weekend with your family? You felt calm, energized, optimistic and confident and had a super productive series of meetings. Then everything changed on a dime when your CFO shot you an email to let you know that you likely have to cut 10% of your next quarter budget while maintaining the planned topline. You couldn’t help but feel frustrated with him. That’s easy for him to say. He just runs the numbers, while you and your team are out there on the front line sweating it to bring in the $.

Then your VP of Business Development dropped by unannounced with news that there seemed to be a wrinkle in the negotiations with a new partner. Somehow you lost your cool and made a comment that suggested it was his fault, which led to a heated and unhelpful discussion about responsibilities, yet did nothing to resolve the issue.

To add insult to injury, you then had to lead your group’s weekly directors meeting and your heart just wasn’t in it. You were there in person, but throughout the meeting your mind was wandering. One of the directors had requested time on the agenda to present a new idea. You listened but it just sounded like one more pipedream. Great idea, but with budget cuts coming you just didn’t feel like you had it in you to try and make this fly.

Some of you may think this is just the reality of being a leader. But what if you could gain more control over how you react to the many different challenges that cross your path as a leader on a daily basis? What if you could access empowering emotions under any circumstances, so you could approach all those daily challenges with flexibility and responsiveness?

The first step is to become more aware of what or who triggers our negative emotions. Once we can learn to identify those moments, we are one step closer to being able to change our reaction.

As the famous psychologist Viktor E. Frankl said:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We must learn to identify those negative stimuli as they happen, so we can pause and explore whether the story we are telling ourselves actually matches with the facts. Is that CFO really not aware that this is a tough ask? What if he just shot you that email to give you a heads up so you have as much time as possible to figure out how to find a solution?

A key challenge for any leader is therefore to remain mindful of their thoughts and emotions as things happen, so they can maintain a positive and clear state of mind that allows you to fully access your talents and skills under any circumstances.

Level 3: Strengthen Your Mental Energy

“I just don’t have the mental energy right now to deal with that.”

We’ve all uttered this phrase – but what does it mean? Clearly, there’s some unspoken force that’s preventing us from appropriately addressing, analyzing and responding to a situation. As a leader your mental acuity is key to your leadership effectiveness, so it’s time well spent to proactively improve it.

Neuroscience identifies 8 core cognitive functions that enable our learning and thinking. Thankfully, to optimize our mental energy, we need to focus on further developing just 3 of those 8 functions. When we optimize those 3 core cognitive functions, they can naturally lead to improved performance of the 5 other core cognitive functions.

The three cognitive functions to focus on to increase mental energy are:

1. Sustained Attention is the basic ability to look, listen and think deeply over a period of time. Interestingly, this is not all about training your mind. As mentioned before, the brain devours 20% of our energy and without proper nutrition, we cannot hope to be able to focus our attention. In addition, to function properly our brain needs water. Even mild dehydration—so slight that you don’t notice or feel thirsty—can lead to inattention. So drink up! The next step to increase your ability to sustain attention for longer is to introduce daily practices that train your brain to repeatedly cycle through focus, distraction and re-focus. Meditation is obviously one of those practices but there are several other approaches that can help train your brain.

2. Response Inhibition is the ability to inhibit one’s own automatic responses to distractions or emotive triggers. For leaders this is a key cognitive function as it can save you from jumping to conclusions, overreacting, etc. It is precisely for this reason that more and more leaders have started to try and integrate mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and several other awareness-enhancing techniques that can improve your response inhibition and thus enable you to be a more thoughtful, considered leader.

3. Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change what you are thinking about, how you are thinking about it and even what you think about it – in other words, the ability to change your mind. This is a core cognitive function for leaders as they frequently have to switch mental gears when moving from one meeting to another, abandon one way of thinking about a problem when it does not lead to a solution and adopt another way of thinking, and give up erroneous information to accept new and correct information. Cognitive control implies the ability to resist the impulse to perseverate and keep thinking in a previously active but no longer appropriate manner.

So how does one develop one’s cognitive flexibility? We are looking for mental activities that cross-train the brain. For example, playing strategic mind games such as chess challenges your brain to quickly analyze and respond to constantly changing and new situations. Similarly, reading good quality long-form essays, literary fiction, or non-fiction books can help keep your cognitive flexibility in shape as it challenges your brain to grasp new perspectives, topics, story lines, and facts.

Focusing on improving these three cognitive function then in turn improves the other five core cognitive functions:

  1. Speed of Information Processing refers to how quickly we can process incoming information.
  2. Working Memory refers to the ability to remember instructions or keep information in the mind. Working memory is the sketchpad of the mind where we put things to think about and manipulate.
  3. Category Formation is the ability to organize information, concepts and skills into categories, and forms the cognitive basis for higher-level abilities like applying, analyzing, and evaluating those concepts and skills.
  4. Pattern Recognition and Inductive Thinking is a special ability of the human brain to not only identify patterns, but figure out in a logical way what those patterns suggest about what will happen next.
  5. Multiple Simultaneous Attention is the ability to move attention and effort back and forth between two or more activities when engaged in them at the same time.

Level 4: Tap Into Your Spiritual Energy

Spiritual energy refers to the energy you derive from being connected to your own purpose, beliefs and values – all that which gives us direction in life.

This is the level of energy that reveals itself when the going gets tough. Those leaders who are deeply aware of and connected to their purpose, beliefs and values will draw heavily on their spiritual energy when they face difficult times and decisions. It is the energy that sustains them through those moments of crisis.

Nurturing your spiritual energy may sound frivolous, but it must not be perceived as such.
Being at the top frequently means making unpopular decisions for the greater good of the business. This can be very draining and requires ample spiritual energy resources to sustain you as a leader through that again and again.

Optimizing your spiritual energy is a deeply personal thing. This is not really about adopting a few practices or techniques into your daily routine. Instead, this is about discovering and more deeply connecting with what drives, directs and sustains you – as an individual, and as a leader.

They Are All Interconnected

As per the logic of the performance pyramid model, each level impacts the next. When our physical energy level is low, our emotional energy is limited. We are likely to be more emotionally volatile, in turn affecting our mental energy level and thus our ability to think clearly and logically.

The important thing is to realize it also works in reverse: If we optimize our foundational physical energy, then this spills over into more emotional energy, which in turn, if optimized, supports higher mental energy and enables us to more easily connect to our spiritual energy resources.

As per the logic of the performance pyramid model, each level impacts the next. When our physical energy level is low, our emotional energy is limited. We are likely to be more emotionally volatile, in turn affecting our mental energy level and thus our ability to think clearly and logically.

So What Does All This Mean?

As Simone Biles showed us this week, having incredible talent and ability isn’t enough to generate sustained success. It’s all built on the foundation of a person’s overall well-being. That’s why leadership development shouldn’t just treat a leaders well-being as a nice-to-have or leave it up to each leader individually. It should be a proactive focus of helping people become better leaders.

Recommended reading

The Corporate Athlete, by Jack Groppel, Ph.D

The Power of Full Engagement, by James E. Loehr

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