On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your energy right now? How would you rate your energy most of the time? Great leadership depends upon great energy. Without energy we lack the ability to inspire, create, and empower people to action. That may seem obvious, but where does that energy come from? It comes from getting into flow. By challenging and stretching ourselves to the limit, and then recovering fully, we cultivate the vitality that people expect from leaders. Tending to our many and at times competing needs with respect and understanding builds essential energy and vitality. Read on to learn how to make that work for you.
Yesterday I ran the SunTrust Marathon in Richmond, Virginia. That’s my second marathon • 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers • in four weeks time. I didn’t plan on running this marathon, but a few weeks ago a friend of mine told me he was running it and invited me to join him. I looked at my calendar, saw I was free, knew he would be running at my pace, and said, “Sure! Why not! Sounds like fun.”
I like being able to do that. I like being trained up enough to just go out and run a marathon at a leisurely pace (we finished in about four and a half hours), without having to agonize or fret over whether or not I had the fitness to finish. I’m not always in that condition, year round, but I am right now thanks to my training for the Baltimore marathon in October. Most of the time I manage to keep myself at least close to marathon ready, averaging at least 30 miles a week including one long run of at least two hours.
I mention these statistics not to impress anyone. Running is my thing and if you run five-six hours a week at moderate intensity • the number of hours recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture at MyPyramid.gov • it adds up to at least 30 miles a week pretty easily. Whether you run, cycle, swim, row, walk briskly, jazzercise, or cross-train (to mention only seven possibilities), five-six hours a week of moderate physical activity is the recommended amount to prevent weight gain and optimize health. Even more may be required to lose weight. It all comes down to calories in versus calories out.
What does this have to do with leadership? A lot. Great leaders stay in great shape. That’s where the energy for leadership comes from. It’s not just values and vision that move leaders forward; it’s also vitality. Leaders do what it takes to be healthy and fit, within the limits of our physical restraints. Not every leader runs marathons, but every leader pays attention to the energy dynamics of the leadership equation.
If you have followed these Provisions for any length of time, or even for just in the past few weeks, then you know that I subscribe to a pretty simple formula when it comes to energy: we gain energy when needs are met, we lose energy when needs are not met. What could be simpler! To take the most obvious example: when we consume food, a basic human need, we gain energy; when we abstain from food, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we lose energy. There goes that calories in versus calories out equation, all over again.
Which also explains why it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Although we gain energy from eating some food, we lose energy from eating too much food as we place increasing strains on our bodies with overweight, obesity, and chronic medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
This is the situation in which much of the world finds itself today. Over the past ten years, the scales have tipped. There are now more overweight and obese people in the world than there are starving people. It’s definitely a global problem. One study of 16,000 people in China did not find a single overweight person in 1989. By 2006, 25 percent of those people were overweight or obese. What happened? They had become more sedentary and more oriented around high-calorie foods and beverages. In other words, they have come to live like developed peoples everywhere.
That’s not the formula, however, for vitality. Vitality results when we find the sweet spot between too much and too little. That’s true for food and for every other universal human need. But here’s the catch: the sweet spot is a moving target. It never stays constant. One minute we’re hungry and the next minute we’re satiated. So we eat and then we stop eating until the cycle starts all over again.
To hit the target we have to pay attention to how its moving. We have to see where it is and we have to anticipate where it will be. As it swings back and forth, we had to adjust our responses accordingly. Great leaders do not put our agendas on autopilot. We continuously monitor conditions on the ground in order to respond intentionally in ways that enhance both our own energy and the energy of the people we work.
Vitality is a key concern of great leaders. That means we pay attention to more than just the task at hand. We also pay attention to energy gains and energy losses, to meeting some needs and not meeting others, so as to make life more wonderful for one and all. We don’t always get it right, but we do always strive to be conscious of and in synch with the energy equation.
I have written before about the excellent book by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement. Together with their colleagues at the Human Performance Institute, Loehr and Schwartz have created the “Corporate Athlete Training System.” What’s that? It’s a system for optimizing leadership effectiveness based upon the following premise: leaders, like athletes, must pay attention to our natural energy rhythms. Training too much or too little both get athletes in trouble. It drains us of the vitality required for peak performance.
When athletes train too much, we risk injury and exhaustion. When we train too little, we risk lethargy and devastation. Neither option is very attractive, and I know that from personal experience. I have started marathons with an injury, and I have also started marathons without enough training. Either way, those were the races in which I lacked the vitality to go the distance without breaking down at the end and walking or limping to the finish. Those runners who are reading this Provision know how unsettling and unhappy that experience can be.
When leaders work too much or too little we assume the same risks. Know about the mid-life heart attack? Welcome to the over-trained leader. Know about the mid-life crisis? Welcome to the under-trained leader. Injury, exhaustion, lethargy, and devastation are the risks we take and the consequences we often face when we fail to address the moving target. Energy rhythms matter when it comes to leadership vitality.
That’s why I have placed the word “Vitality” in the middle of my diagram on The Wheel of Universal Human Needs. Vitality blossoms when needs are met. But needs are never met in isolation from each other. As I wrote last week in my Provision, Vision Matters, there are inherent tensions in needs. Every need cannot be met all at once. They exist as dialectical pairs and the task of leadership is to figure out which needs have to be met now, and to what extent, on a moment to moment basis. When we get that right, vitality increases. When we get that wrong, vitality decreases.
The key is to make vitality both the measure and mode of leadership. Too often leaders treat vitality as a nice-to-have rather than a have-to-have. We think our job is to bear down and get things done, no matter what. We think that vitality can wait until we finish our current project and take our next vacation. We think that employees are replaceable, so who cares if we push people past the limit of no return? We think work is a chore, so why worry about vitality?
Not so fast. When vitality is lacking, leadership as well as organizational effectiveness suffer. We lose such key leadership essentials as endurance, creativity, vision, influence, empathy, and resilience. As our energy goes down our leadership breaks down, as though we were limping to the finish line of a marathon. And that’s not good for anyone.
If you have been rationalizing a lack of vitality as a temporary condition that will improve when some condition is met, I encourage you to think again. The light at the end of the tunnel is not at the end; it is at a turn that redirects us to the next light. When we find ourselves hanging on, hoping against hope that things will somehow, someday, somewhere get better, we are deluding ourselves. Things get better only when we change the tempo and dance to a different rhythm. Things get better only when leaders intentionally set out to enhance energy and vitality,
That’s my challenge to us all in this Provision. Vitality matters. If we are lacking vitality then it’s time to change course. As leaders, we set the pace. If we are workaholics with no boundaries and no recoveries, then that will become the culture of entire organizations. It will be a culture with no rhythm and no life. If, on the other hand, we honor both hard work and rejuvenating rest, then the vitality that results will disseminate widely so as to create new possibilities and full engagement.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this vitality in terms of flow. Flow is the experience of being fully engaged in an activity because it is perfectly tailored to our current level of energy and skills. Running a marathon would not be a good way for many people to boost their vitality. It might be beyond them. For those who are ready and rested, however, it can be a life-enhancing experience.
Rested? Yes! After the hard training, marathon runners cut back on our running in the weeks prior to a marathon. It’s more important to have fresh legs and an eager mind than to have run as many miles as possible. That’s a formula for disaster. It certainly doesn’t get runners into flow; and it doesn’t get leaders into flow either.
Leaders get into flow by paying attention to the energy dynamics of situations. What is required? The push or the pull? The accelerator or the brake? The challenge or the training? Speaking or listening? Hanging on or letting go? Standing alone or standing together? Working hard or resting fully? Tending to these rhythms is the stuff that makes for great leadership, and I encourage you to tend to your rhythms today.
Coaching Inquiries: What would rejuvenate your energy and vitality right now? Is it more about tackling a challenge or taking a break? Where does your passion lie? How could self-care and self-responsibility work together both for your own good and for the good of the people you lead? What is one experiment you could take in the next week to make life more wonderful?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I have become a huge fan of Trust Matters and Evocative Coaching. Your “heart” in teacher education and support really shows through. I have read and used the material in Trust Matters in my own educational setting and am currently reading Evocative Coaching which has truly been transformational as I work to support colleagues in these challenging times. I would like to attend the coach training program after completion of my dissertation.
Thank you so much for sending me your book, Evocative Coaching! It’s really inspirational and such a good resource to help me in my development as a teacher in my new program. I’m starting to teach this semester and I find your ideas very helpful in coaching master students in their final project. I especially like the questions for reflection and discussion after each chapter, they really got me thinking! Thanks.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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