Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working with a group of leaders on the subject of human energy for high performance. During this session, we explored what it takes to perform consistently with the highest levels of energy when it matters most, based on decades of research conducted with elite athletes and military special ops teams. Sports psychologist Jack Groppel and his colleague, exercise physiologist Jim Loehr, were seeking to understand how these high performing professional athletes, who were at the top of their game, could rise to even higher levels of achievement. What these researchers discovered was that regardless how much time, energy, effort and training these athletes put into their preparation, their performance was limited until they were able to tap into what mattered most to them: their ultimate mission.
Taking Care of Business
When you compare these professional athletes to professional leaders, it is easy to see the similarities. Leaders are like “corporate athletes,” in that they are required to perform consistently under intense pressure, measured by their numbers and held to sometimes brutal accountability. Last year’s record becomes the new standard or baseline for this year’s performance. Taking care of one’s body is taking care of the business. Laser-focus in the moment is required for success.
Lastly, the right energy is required for high performance in both of these types of professionals. Professional athletes work four to six hours per day, 90 percent of that time is spent training and preparing for game time. They endure a career span of seven to 10 years. By contrast, professional leaders typically spend eight to 12 hours per day, 10 percent training for a 30+ year career span. In agriculture, these numbers are likely even more extreme. The key difference here is that elite performers invest in training, whereas our professional leaders are up against more demands over a longer period of time with limited resources and training. So how can we train for life? The reality is we only have 24 hours in a day. However, we can change the energy we bring to those moments that matter most to ourselves, stakeholders or loved ones. Energy is a personal resource that can be expanded and managed. Proper motivation changes our mindset and changes our energy. The more engaged we are, the greater our ability to perform at higher levels. Managing our energy, not time, is key to unlocking extraordinary results.
Energy is four-dimensional: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. These dimensions are interconnected and interdependent. For example, a person who is physically exhausted or hungry might experience a heightened emotional sensitivity. We might call them “hangry.” Similarly, heightened emotions, such as worry, fear, anger, may impact rational thinking and decision making. Furthermore, when we allow these other dimensions to rule us indiscriminately, it is unlikely we are fulfilling our greatest purpose, functioning as our best self, or operating with emotional intelligence. The spiritual dimension refers to having a clear sense of purpose or personal mission. While not tied to any specific religious or faith-based traditions, these might inform one’s sense of purpose. Lastly, it bears noting that although energy inspires extraordinary performance from the top of the pyramid down, we increase energy capacity from the bottom up. For example, when we can prepare in advance for creative problem solving in the mental dimension by caring for our physical well-being with adequate sleep, nutrition and hydration, and then addressing the emotional dimension through journaling, deep-breathing or talking to a loved one.
Practical Application: A Remarkable Journey
During a recent group travel seminar, participants had daily opportunities to practice energy management on all dimensions. As our alumni will report, these travel seminars are described as intense, often emotionally charged marathons of meetings and experiences, designed to expand critical thinking skills while reinforcing leadership behaviors and principles. Not only is the schedule fast-paced and physically demanding at times, the topics and issues discussed may challenge the mental and emotional dimensions, as well.
Program participants demonstrated exemplary energy management by balancing the high intensity and demands of some days with adequate rest and self-care as needed, as well as understanding and compassion for each other during some of the more sensitive moments of the trip. Navigating the day-to-day adjustments, the class acknowledged the looming uncertainty that followed in anticipation of the coronavirus outbreak. It seemed we were one day ahead of each stop in our agenda.
We had planned to tour the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to learn about leadership in emergency situations (i.e., outbreaks). So, when the EOC was activated, we relocated to a different part of the facility. We were uncertain what we might encounter during our discussion of emergency preparedness, food safety and tour of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum. Then we learned that President Trump would be onsite the next day, so there was a level of increased security and flurry of activity in preparation for his arrival. Special thanks to our contact at the CDC, without whom we likely would not have had access, were it not for connecting with her as a participant in one of our 2019 programs. When visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and National Center for Civil and Human Rights (also in Atlanta), the class experienced a simulation of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, learned about the Freedom Riders and the courageous struggles endured in the not so distant past.
In Washington, D.C., the class called on all three branches of government, learning how each one interacts with others and enjoyed a special tour of the Capitol with Rep. Jim Costa. As we departed to Gettysburg to learn about leadership lessons on the battlefield, we learned that all government offices had been closed to public visits. Then Friday, we departed in time to arrive home, reconnect with loved ones and prepare for self-quarantine.
We are grateful to have completed this travel seminar when we did. What a difference a day makes! I commend the class for setting the pace, managing their own needs, showing up with their full and best energy and engaging completely in this learning experience. They will make a significant difference both individually and collectively in the months and years to come.
Time for Reflection
At the time of writing this, California is under a mandatory shelter-in-place directive, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In addition to what has already been said about the importance of self-care, personal hygiene and social distancing, we now must recalibrate, reassess and redefine our personal missions. May we all take this moment in time to reflect on the following questions:
- What matters most?
- What difference do I really want to make in the world?
- Why is this so important to me?
- What is at risk if I do nothing?
- What are the stories I tell myself about why (or why not)?
- What small daily rituals can I begin creating today that move toward that ultimate mission?
The research shows when we take moments to reflect on questions like these, we are capable of unlocking extraordinary results. Imagine if we all became clearer on our personal mission, and took one small step forward toward it. And then another, and another. Think of what could be possible!
For more information on this or other leadership topics, please see the following references or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- David J. Sencer CDC Museum: https://www.cdc.gov/museum/index.htm
- Groppel, J. L., Andelman, B. and Loehr, J. (1999). The corporate athlete: How to achieve maximal performance in business and life. Wiley Publishers.
- Hendricks, S., (2020). Human energy for high performance. Horizons Magazine, California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, 10 – 11. https://www.agleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/CAL-CL-5729-HorizonsSPRING2020-WEB.pdf
- Loehr, J. E. & Schwartz, T. (2005). The power of full engagement: Managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal. Simon and Schuster.
- National Civil and Human Rights Museum: https://www.civilandhumanrights.org/