The Corporate Athlete … business leaders turn to fitness, diet and sleep, as the ingredients for high performance

June 11, 2019

I’ve been running each morning for 40 years now.

Give or take the occasional guilt-ridden absence due to illness or injury, it’s been a streak ever since I joined the school lunchtime running club as a 10 year old. I run in rain or shine, wherever I am in the world, on birthdays and even on my wedding day. Anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Sometimes fast, sometimes more relaxed.

I used to run to win, training for competitions on the road and track, to be the fastest around, to steal the glory. As a teenager I was the best miler and cross country runner in the north of England. As I got older, and daily and work life came to the fore, I still ran, but with a slightly different motivation.

Today, it’s about feeling good. To feel fit and lean, to blow out the cobwebs after a late night or long flight. Today, it’s an entirely personal achievement. I don’t race anymore. Although I do still measure distance and time, heartbeat and recovery time.  Now it’s about wellness, physical and mental.

And what’s surprising is how many business leaders are runners, or other types of athletes, too. James Dyson still tells of his love of sprinting up sand dunes, Richard Branson swims for an hour every morning (admittedly in the beauty of his Caribbean island). Howard Shultz, Satya Nadella, Mark Benioff, Jim Radcliffe are all runners.

Research even shows that “marathon runners make better CEOs“.

Fitness and the business leader

So what skills are necessary for high performance as a business leader?

What makes someone able to perform successfully under high stress and constant change and to keep doing it over time without breaking down? As it turns out, we have lots of answers to this question, and most focus on the rewards necessary for greatness, the kind of culture that breeds success, and the particular skill sets necessary for peak performance.

But recently, Harvard Business School conducted a different kind of study, one that examined the strategies and habits of winning athletes and whether they could be transferred to apply to business—in essence, whether we could train high-level executives as corporate athletes. It appears that the answer is “yes.”  We can indeed apply the wisdom of sport to help ourselves succeed in anything and everything that’s challenging.

As someone who competed as a high-level athlete for over two decades, it has long been clear to me that the skills and mindset I learned as a competitive athlete are what allow me to succeed in every other pursuit in my life, both professionally and personally. It appears that now there’s proof.

Research in the field of sport demonstrates that top athletes succeed in large part because of their ability to perform under stress, and more importantly, to recover after stress has occurred. Recovery is the critical process in which the body and mind not only rest, but also rebuild new strengths and develop resilience, as a muscle does between workouts.

When comparing the careers of athletes and executives however, vast differences exist in the natural opportunities for recovery. Most of an athlete’s time is spent in practice with just a small percentage in actual competition. An executive, however, is in competition every day, all day. An athlete’s high-stress season is usually fairly short with lots of time to recover in the off- season, while a corporate athlete gets a few weeks off per year if she’s lucky (during which time she usually works). And finally, the average top-level athlete’s career lasts less than a decade while an executive’s career spans a lifetime.  All that said, an executive, if he is to reap the benefits of the recovery process must find alternative ways to rest and rebuild.

To consistently perform well in high-stress environments, executives must focus not just on the skills needed for their specific field, but more broadly, on creating a mindful and nourishing life, one that feeds them physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. To create excellence at work, a corporate athlete must ultimately create excellence in life.

Becoming a ‘corporate athlete’

Although executives are primarily mentally-focused, the corporate athlete must, nonetheless, pay close attention to the wellbeing of his or her body, not just how it looks but how it is being taken care of. A corporate athlete cannot function at a high level for very long as just a head running around without a body attached. Corporate athletes are inclined to forget about their bodies, and yet, over time this dismissive attitude is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. Attention to diet, exercise, sleep, and a program of physical well-being cannot be excluded when excellence is the goal.

On an emotional level, the corporate athlete must pay close attention to her feeling state. He cannot wait for a strong emotion like anger or frustration to overwhelm him and thus land him on the bench. Just as an athlete might ask herself how she is feeling on a physical level, a corporate athlete must be aware of how she is on an emotional level and also be able to manage strong emotions when they arise. Mindfulness of emotion is thus a critical practice in the creation of excellence.

From a mental perspective, the ability to control our attention is the key ingredient in the ability to perform under and recover from stress. We must be able to focus our attention when it counts, and turn our attention away from negative and distracting thoughts. Meditation is the practice of observing and separating from our thoughts, which protects us from getting caught up and sidelined by the thoughts that destroy performance. As such, meditation is the practice of most importance, mentally, for creating peak performance.

And finally, on a spiritual level, a corporate athlete must discover meaning in his life—why he’s doing what he’s doing, what really matters to him, what values he’s serving. As unrelated as it may seem to the executive mindset, a top-level performer in any field, in order to sustain herself, must consciously contemplate what her life is about. A sense of meaning is, above all else, the antidote to burnout.

Top level executives are athletes—corporate athletes. Excellence is created not just by the obvious skills one’s profession demands, but by nurturing a whole and well human being. To create and maintain high-level performance in stressful environments, we must pay attention to and nourish all areas of our life. As it turns out, self-care is, in fact, the recipe for greatness.

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