Corporate Athletics: Unleashing Untapped Energy for Peak Performance

(This blog was first published in February, 2013 at The Integral Business Leadership Group’s website and blog)

In all activities of life, the secret of efficiency lies in an ability to combine two seemingly incompatible states: a state of maximum activity and a state of maximum relaxation. – Aldous Huxley

In this very moment you are experiencing one of a number of different performance states (e.g. relaxed, energized, anxious, exhausted). We tend to think of (and experience) each state as a temporary event in time. Yet every state or experience is intrinsically linked to how you felt the moment before, how you slept last night, what you thought about this morning, what you “need“ to do tomorrow, etc. So while we can only experience this very moment, our experience is impacted by a stream of previous moments, like a flow or a domino effect. The more we realize thisthe more we allow for this ‘flow’the more we are able to perform optimally in each moment.

The Challenge

In practice this means continuously working on replacing habits that don’t serve with ones that do. This is a process without a distinct endan “endless” challenge that may feel draining just to think about. As business leaders, this challenge manifests in our conditioning to prefer linear processes, “checking boxes” and “reaching goals.” But what if we saw the process as an ongoing stream that helps us unleash energy and liberates us from feeling overwhelmed, tired and frustrated? What if we could replenish energy as quickly as it is being utilized, operate at peak performance and still find time to balance work with personal activities?

This is the ‘state of being’ of the Corporate Athlete who is able to draw from all energy channels.

The Transformation Tools

For me the study of energy management has been long-standing and transformational. My interest took a turn in 1999 when, as a 22-year-old engineering student at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, I came across a book called “Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success In Sport and Life” by Dan Millman, former elite gymnast and coach. When considering my background as an athlete who had completed Green Beret training in the Swedish Arctic, and the fact that I was currently enrolled in a demanding educational program, I felt confident I had a solid foundational understanding of the importance of effective energy management. But Millman’s book was like a slap in the facethere was a lot more to learn!

His was a more complete and balanced approach than anything I had ever encountered before. And I wasn’t the only one. NBA coach Phil Jackson, a.k.a. “the Zen Master,” who won two NBA championships as a player and nine as a head coach, reported having “Body Mind Mastery” as a must read for his Chicago Bulls players.

The reality for today’s business leaders

Although many of Millman’s concepts are based in traditional Eastern philosophy, they have been refined and leveraged in the world of Western business leadership and organizational development. One of the strongest contributions made is “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key To High Performance and Personal Renewal” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

Working with world-class athletes and business executives, they found the performance demands that most business leaders face today dwarf those of any world-class professional athlete. One reason is professional athletes spend about 90% of their time in training in order to perform about 10% of the time. That’s a very different ratio from what most leaders, managers and other business professionals experience. This skewed ratio is one of the reasons why so many business leaders perform below their potential and it also points to one of the biggest opportunities in business today.

So what is energy and how is it being generated?

As human beings we are constantly transforming and channeling energy in various forms. Food is transformed into energy, thoughts and emotions can both energize and drain, etc. The body/mind both expends and generates energy in every moment. But it is not a zero-sum game! You can expend energy (e.g. by going for a brisk walk) and feel a lot more energized as a result or you can re-direct your attention (e.g. shifting focus of inner energy, working with our mindset) in ways that release energy. If we break it down, we could say energy is being both generated and expended through the below four dynamically interconnected sources, which together create “a human energy system”:

  • Physical (nutrition, exercise, sleep)
  • Emotional (connection to and ability to process/manage various emotional states)
  • Mental (ability to pay attention, positive/negative mindset, thought patterns)
  • Spiritual (awareness and alignment of core values and purpose, integrity and authenticity)

Change in one dimension affects change in another. It follows that a balanced cross-training approach (or Integral Life Practice) is necessary to optimize “the system.” For example, you can increase physical strength and generate energy via regular physical exercise. However, if you engage in physical exercise with intentional inner present-moment awareness (as opposed to reading a magazine or watching TV while you hit the elliptical) then you are also connecting to and drawing from all four sources of energy: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In this form of cross-training a seemingly subtle difference can create synergies that lead to radically new and positive outcomes.

How do we develop these greater energy-generating and management capacities?

First, it is important to become aware of one’s present habits and rituals. Both those that are serving us well and those that aren’t. When we see how our existing habits fit together we can create synergies as well as see where the biggest points of leverage exist. This customization is key and the more accurately it is done the greater the impact.

Second, we need to work to expand our existing “energy container.” To do this, we must be willing to expend energy beyond our comfort zone and allow enough time to recover between the cycles of development. This is naturally how “muscle building” works whether we are lifting physical, mental, emotional or spiritual weights. To reap the long-term rewards we must thus be willing to endure short-term discomfort.

Third, it helps to realize that we are rhythmic beings living in a rhythmic universe. We can observe this from the micro to the macro and in our breathing cycles, sleeping cycles, brain waves, pulse, etc. To become aware of one’s existing rhythmic patterns is essential when doing this work as these patterns can then be leveraged, for example, in the scheduling and duration of new rituals (routines).

What you can do right now

  • Work in sprints of 60, 90 or maximum 120 minutes and then take minimum 5-minute break. Stand up, stretch, take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, have a sip of water. Get out of the chair and move!
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation to relax your body/mind and also become more intimate with your existing energy management patterns. For example, compulsive and obsessive thinking is a huge energy drainer.
  • Exercise in ways that you both enjoy and that include cardio, strength and flexibility. Lean into your discomfort without overextending yourself. Experiment and try new things. Combine a team sport (basketball, soccer) with a more holistic and individual practice (yoga, martial arts).
  • When you are in conversation with others become aware of how much you are talking versus listening and what takes/gives most energy for you. Can you listen with a more open and relaxed attention or are you straining and just waiting for your turn to speak? Are you putting too much energy and effort into speaking to make yourself heard?

Conclusion

We all know that the individuals, teams and organizations that generate the most energy and direct it well are the ones that thrive. To realize this form of peak performance it’s imperative to work with individuals, teams and organizations through a truly holistic and integrated approach. Business can learn from professional athletes, by moving from a narrow focus of how to reach peak performance to one where cross-training over time is seen as essential for building the right muscles for peak performance.  In business, this happens less through skills training workshops and more in a tailor-made development program that helps the individual expand and transform their unique “personal energy system” from the ground up.

Not surprisingly, companies like Google are leading the way by, among other things, allowing 20% of work time to be spent on practicing/playing/training activities that are virtually freely chosen by individuals. Google has also developed an internal meditation and mindfulness program.

What these companies are discovering is that this approach to development is not only good for employees/corporate culture, but it is good business overall.

You can map out a fight plan or a life plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned, and you’re down to your reflexesthat means your preparation. That’s where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you’re going to get found out now, under the bright lights. ― Joe Frazier


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