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Boost Your Leadership Health

Jenny Howe, Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach, The Niagara Institute
March 7, 2011

Maintaining optimum mental and physical fitness is a prerequisite for sustainable success in today’s competitive global marketplace. Whether you are a front-line manager or in the executive suite, you need more and more time and energy to deal with rising volumes of information. If you are not careful, you can easily find yourself overloaded.

Yet stress can be a positive force. At an optimum level it can be a strong motivator, keeping you stretching for and achieving new levels of excellence. If stress gets too great, however, it can deprive your brain of its ability to see patterns. Stress can lead to increased reactivity, causing you to forgo long-term success for short-term wins.

True leadership resilience involves the whole person. As you protect your physical and mental well-being, you naturally increase your ability to lead yourself and others forward in creative, collaborative work.

As you protect your physical and mental well-being, you naturally increase your ability to lead.

Launching in April 2011, The Niagara Institute’s Building Leadership Resilience program will provide you with tools and techniques to help you increase your resilience, which will enhance your ability to achieve lasting results and maintain high performance while under high pressure.

Effective Practices

Covered in more depth in the Building Leadership Resilience program, the following practices will be highly effective in increasing your mental and physical energy. Boost your leadership health by choosing some of these options and committing to practising them for four weeks. You will be surprised at how small, consistent steps can yield disproportionately high rewards.

Candid Self-Assessment

Reflection and resilience are inextricably linked. To function at your best, you must take time to reflect on exactly where you are and where you want to go.

Answer the following questions weekly to assess, prioritize, and plan your path.

  • How well are my current practices serving me?
  • Where do I believe I am being the most effective?
  • Where am I feeling most challenged?
  • What is most important for me to achieve, both at work and in life?
  • What do I need to let go of or change in order to succeed?
  • What do I want to commit to right now?

This practice works well for both self-care and work priorities.

Physical and Mental Fitness

The mind-body connection is incredibly strong. Positive physical energy means positive mental clarity. You do not need to be at the gym every morning or run a marathon each year, but you do need to take a look at how you are currently eating, sleeping, and managing your physical energy.

Even in small amounts, sleep deprivation significantly undermines your capacity for focus, analytical thinking, and creativity.

Many of us today have bought into the myth that getting one hour less of sleep, or working through lunch, equals one more hour of productivity. Although it may appear to work in the short term, it is doomed to failure as a standard practice. Even in small amounts, sleep deprivation significantly undermines your capacity for focus, analytical thinking, and creativity. The following simple yet effective practices can produce remarkable changes.

  • Sleep: Go to bed an hour earlier; wind down at least 45 minutes before and resist the temptation to check e-mails just before going to sleep.
  • Breathe deeply: This can be done effectively in several four- to five-minute breaks built into your day. Simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe in as slowly and deeply as you can for a count of seven. Feel your abdomen rise with the incoming breath. Hold your breath for a count of seven and notice the tension in your body, perhaps in your neck and shoulders, and release it. Breathe out slowly for a count of seven. Notice any feelings that arise and let them pass. Over time, you will be amazed how quickly this calms your mind and body and brings a sense of clarity and focus to what you do next.
  • Take energy breaks: Research1 tells us that we can manage our attention and achieve more when we work in uninterrupted sprints, rather than marathons. Once a day, schedule an uninterrupted period of 60 to 90 minutes. Niagara Institute clients have had success by posting a do not disturb sign on their door for a certain period each day (particularly first thing in the morning). When you can, focus on one task at a time and work for 60 to 90 minutes. Then, get up and take a 5- to 10-minute energy break, do something completely different: take a walk, practise deep breathing, or talk to a friend. This will allow you to give your best energy to your most critical tasks. Colleagues will come to appreciate that when they do talk with you, they get your full, undivided attention.
  • Take a lunch break: Even if it is only 30 minutes, get away from your desk and move around. When you eat, actually notice and savour your food as you chew and swallow.
  • Work hard at play: Play lies at the heart of our capacity to imagine and invent. New research on the neuroplasticity of the brain shows that you can build new neural pathways and slow the negative impact that stress and aging can have on your mental abilities. Taking the time to learn a new language, skill, or game—or to practise a long-lost hobby, such as art, the piano, or needlepoint—can boost your long-term mental agility. If you also have fun along the way, powerful endorphins will be released in your body, which promote wellness and the kinds of positive emotions and energy that underpin optimum performance.

Networks and Relationships

Resilient organizations depend on resilient leaders who build broad, collaborative networks and relationships.

Successful organizations, including the military, have learned that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone’s commitment and intelligence.

—Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

The following steps will help strengthen your ability to identify and articulate effective new strategies.

  • Take some time each week to have one or two informal conversations with people who are not in your usual sphere.
  • Spend time learning about their perspectives, concerns, and experiences.
  • Ask open-ended questions and withhold judgment, stepping back from your prior knowledge, expertise, and beliefs.

Leaders today face the challenge of building effective, adaptable strategies with fewer resources while continuing to motivate and engage people. Taking the time to find ways to engage with colleagues and customers, especially those you rarely have contact with, can produce some amazing new insights.

In today’s fast-paced world, resilience is all about capacity. Leaders must ask themselves: “Do we have the capacity to respond with speed and agility to the ever-changing opportunities and challenges we face?” The Building Leadership Resilience program will help you build the capacity to answer with a resounding “Yes.”

1 Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement (New York: The Free Press, 2003).

Jenny Howe
Jenny Howe
Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach
The Niagara Institute
Executive Development Program
Building Leadership Resilience

Related Executive Development Programs
Leading With Authenticity
Leadership Development Program
Executive Leadership Program

Related Publications
Beyond Benefits: Creating a Culture of Health and Wellness in Canadian Organizations

Related Conferences
Workplace Mental Health 2011