To perform their best, leaders must nurture their minds and bodies.
Twenty years ago, the sudden emergence of ESPN’s daily poker broadcasting sparked global debate. How does card playing merit coverage, given the absence of spherical objects and sweaty high-fives? The emerging consensus that cards, chess, and spelling all qualify made sense to me only when I returned to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises… requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Like chess, leading change requires stamina and takes a toll physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Leadership’s daily demands create a high-stress work environment. In a December survey, 76% of workers reported burnout. These challenges are especially prominent among leaders, and even pre-date the pandemic: school principals, for example, are nearly twice as likely to experience stress symptoms than the general population. Managing change daily on tight timelines requires nonstop communication, often with overstretched team members and stakeholders. The work requires the pace of a sprint for the duration of a marathon.
For both athletes and leaders, sustaining performance throughout an intense season requires careful planning and consistent execution. For their part, leaders need good mental acuity and energy to support decision-making. Leaders benefit from a comprehensive plan that parallels the holistic benefits of an athlete’s support system.
These 8 strategies create the foundation for optimal leadership performance:
1. Be clear on your priorities.
Fulfilling a leadership role requires clear vision not only for the organization but also for yourself. What is most important in your life? What do you want to drive toward, and why? How do these priorities compare with your role’s goals? Alignment between what your personal mission and your daily professional experiences is essential for fulfillment and for preventing or mitigating burnout.
2. Fuel your mind and body.
What you eat directly impacts the quality of your thinking. Intentionality here is especially important, as high stress levels can lead to cortisol hormone spikes, which increase appetite and emotional eating behaviors. As a school leader, I often skipped meals due to a busy schedule and forgot to drink water; on other days, I chose to eat something on the go. Processed foods are low in nutrient density; consuming foods dense with nutrients — such as seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables — and sufficient water is essential for brain activity. Slowing down lets your body absorb the nutrients in your food. If you make time to sit, connect with other humans in a relaxed environment, and chew your food fully, your brain serves you better.
3. Exercise sustainably.
Athletes must move their bodies to promote recovery and strong performance. Leaders typically fall short in one of two ways. Many don’t move enough; twenty minutes of light exercise can trigger the release of serotonin, which makes you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and calmer. The movement need not be extreme: walking helps you think, improves your mood, and helps you sleep better.
If you have developed an exercise habit, evaluate whether it is supporting your goals. When an intense fitness class leaves you nauseous, exhausted, or injured, how does that help you? High intensity work, in fact, can promote brain fog. Is that actually what you want to do before your strategic planning session? The ideal is somewhere in the middle. A balance of resistance training and aerobic work appropriate for your capacity and skills will best support you. Strength training has been found to improve sleep and cognition and to alleviate anxiety and depression.
For all humans, sleep is one of the most important things you can do, yet most Americans don’t get enough. Being underslept correlates with poorer decision-making and health. The really hard part is that, when you’re sleep deprived, your brain does not realize how sleep deprived it is. Take steps to ensure you are getting the sleep you need. Wind-down routines leading to a dark, cool bedroom help you bring your best self the next day.
5. Balance work and rest.
It’s important to think about balancing work with rest and recovery, both in the short and long term: day, week, month, year. Most people enter unsustainable professional stretches, whether driven by a new project, understaffing, or significant disruption to work conditions. The rate of work at these times must be balanced by rest in order to avoid burnout. Periodic pushes may be unavoidable, but they must be balanced with rest and recovery. Don’t throw yourself out as the starting pitcher every day all year. Build a full bullpen by empowering your team around you. There’s a reason why leagues track player minutes and throw counts precisely. You have to periodize to avoid overuse and burnout. Conventional schedules allocate time for you to rest: use your nights, weekends, and vacations to unplug and recover.
6. Regulate your emotions.
Athletes are able to regulate their emotions to bring out their best performance. Emotional stability brings out the best performance in you and your team. Practicing mindfulness, noticing your emotions in the moment, breathing, and building awareness of specific emotions all support your ability to lead. After practicing these strategies for your own emotional health, consider creating pathways to support your team in doing the same. Cultivating a space in which people feel safe to continually improve starts with you.
Elite athletes stay on top only by getting better each day. Modern teams have improved in recent years by drawing upon new sources of information, such as video and data analytics. Leaders, too, must intentionally seek out ways to learn. Dedicate time to reflect daily on what went well and what didn’t. Actively solicit feedback from your coach and your colleagues, and show your team how you have incorporated their opinions. Creating a culture in which your team learns starts with you.
8. Build habits and routines.
40% of our behaviors are habitual. Busy schedules do not allow for daily conscious choices in prioritization, rest, nutrition, movement, learning, and emotional regulation. Building consistent routines in each of these domains is essential to bringing your best each day. In the long run, consistency outperforms short, intensive bursts.
We receive and internalize complex messages about our bodies and our work. Optimizing for leadership performance requires aligning professional and personal visions with habits. As with professional sports, leading change requires discipline around the clock to maximize your results.
Source: Leading Well, Leaders as Athletes