The Making of a Corporate Athlete

Written by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

Some executives thrive under pressure. Others wilt. Is the reason all in their heads? Hardly. Sustained high achievement demands physical and emotional strength as well as a sharp intellect. To bring mind, body, and spirit to peak condition, executives need to learn what world-class athletes already know: recovering energy is as important  as expending it.

There is one quality that executives seek for themselves and their employees, it is sustained high performance in the face of ever-increasing pressure and rapid change. But the source of such performance is as elusive as the fountain of youth. Management theorists have long sought to identify precisely what makes some people flourish under pressure and others fold. We maintain that they have come up with only partial answers: rich material rewards, the right culture, management by objectives.

The problem with most approaches, we believe, is that they deal with people  only from the neck up, connecting high performance primarily with cognitive  capacity.  In recent years there has been a growing focus on the relationship between emotional intelligence and  high  performance. A few theorists have  addressed the  spiritual dimension – how deeper values and a sense of purpose in- fluence  performance. Almost no one has paid any attention to the role played by physical capacities. A successful approach to sustained high performance, we have found, must pull together all of these elements and consider  the person  as a whole. Thus, our integrated theory of performance  management addresses  the  body, the  emotions, the mind, and the spirit. We call this hierarchy the performance  pyramid.  Each of its levels profoundly influences the  others,  and failure  to address  any one of them  com- promises  performance.

Our approach has its roots in the two decades that Jim Loehr and his colleagues at LGE spent working with 120 world-class  athletes. Several  years  ago, the  two of us began to develop  a more comprehensive version of these techniques for executives facing unprecedented demands in the workplace. In effect, we realized, these executives are “corporate athletes.” If they  were to perform at high levels over the long haul, we posited, they would have to train  in the  same systematic, multilevel way that world- class athletes do. We have now tested our model on thou- sands  of executives. Their  dramatically improved work performance and  their  enhanced health and  happiness confirm our initial hypothesis. In the pages that follow, we describe our approach in detail.

Ideal Performance State

In training athletes, we have never  focused  on their primary skills – how to hit a serve, swing a golf club, or shoot a basketball. Likewise, in business we don’t  address  primary competencies such as public speaking, negotiating, or analyzing a balance sheet.  Our efforts  aim instead to help  executives build  their capacity for what might be called  supportive or  secondary competencies, among them endurance, strength, flexibility,  self-control, and focus.  Increasing capacity at all levels  allows  athletes and  executives alike  to bring  their talents and  skills to full ignition and to sustain high performance over time – a condition we call the Ideal Performance State (IPS). Obviously, executives can perform successfully even if they smoke,  drink  and  weigh  too  much, or  lack  emotional skills or a higher purpose for working. But they  cannot perform to  their full  potential or  without a cost  over time – to themselves, to their families,  and to the  corporations rations for which  they  work. Put  simply,  the  best  long- term performers tap into  positive  energy at all levels of the performance pyramid.

Extensive research in sports science has confirmed that the  capacity  to mobilize  energy  on demand is the  foundation of IPS. Our own work has demonstrated that effective  energy  management has  two key components. The first is the  rhythmic movement between energy  expenditure (stress) and energy  renewal (recovery), which we term “oscillation.” In the living laboratory of sports, we learned that the  real enemy  of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is actually  the stimulus for growth.  Rather, the  problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery. Chronic  stress without  recovery  depletes energy  reserves,  leads to burnout and  breakdown, and  ultimately undermines  performance. Rituals that promote oscillation – rhythmic stress and recovery – are the second component of high performance.  Repeated regularly, these  highly  precise,  consciously developed routines become automatic over time. The same methods that enable world-class athletes to reach IPS under pressure, we theorized, would be at least equally  effective  for business  leaders – and perhaps even more important in their lives. The demands on executives to sustain  high performance day in and day out, year in and year out, dwarf the challenges faced by any athlete we have  ever  trained. The  average   professional athlete, for example, spends most of his time practicing and only a small percentage – several hours a day, at most – actually competing. The typical executive, by contrast, devotes  almost  no time  to training and  must  perform on demand ten, 12, 14 hours  a day or more.  Athletes enjoy  several months of off-season, while most executives are fortunate to get three or four weeks of vacation a year. The career of the average  professional athlete spans seven years; the average  executive can expect to work 40 to 50 years.

Of course, even corporate athletes who train  at all levels will have bad days and run into challenges they can’t overcome. Life is tough, and for many  time-starved executives, it is only getting tougher. But that is precisely our point. While it isn’t always in our power to change our external conditions, we can train to better manage our inner state. We aim to help corporate athletes use the full range of their  capacities to thrive  in the most difficult  circumstances  and  to  emerge from  stressful  periods  stronger, healthier, and eager for the next challenge.

Physical Capacity

Energy can be defined most simply as the capacity  to do work. Our  training process  begins  at the  physical  level because  the body is our fundamental source  of energy – the foundation of the performance pyramid. Perhaps the best paradigm for building capacity  is weight lifting. Several  decades  of sports science  research have  established that the key to increasing physical strength is a phenomenon known  as super compensation – essentially  the  creation of balanced work-rest ratios. In weight lifting, this involves stressing  a muscle  to  the  point where  its fibers literally start to break down. Given an adequate period of recovery (typically at least 48 hours), the muscle will not only heal, it will grow stronger. But persist in stressing the muscle  without rest  and  the  result  will be  acute  and chronic  damage. Conversely,  failure  to stress the muscle results in weakness  and atrophy. (Just think  of an arm in a cast for several weeks.) In both  cases, the enemy  is not stress, it’s linearity – the  failure  to oscillate  between energy expenditure and recovery.

We first understood the power of rituals  to prompt recovery by observing world-class tennis players in the crucible of match play. The best competitors, we discovered, use precise  recovery rituals  in the  15 or 20 seconds  between points– often without even being aware of it. Their between-point routines include concentrating on  the strings of their rackets to avoid distraction, assuming a con- fident  posture, and visualizing  how  they  want  the  next point to play out.  These  routines have  startling physiological effects. When we hooked players up to heart rate monitors during  their  matches, the competitors with the most consistent rituals showed dramatic oscillation, their heart rates  rising rapidly  during  play and then dropping as much  as 15% to 20% between points.

The mental and emotional effects of precise between- point  routines are equally significant. They allow players to avoid negative feelings, focus their minds, and prepare for the next point. By contrast, players who lack between- point rituals, or who practice them inconsistently become linear – they  expend  too much  energy  without recovery. Regardless  of their  talent or level of fitness, they become more  vulnerable to frustration, anxiety,  and  loss of concentration and far more  likely to choke  under pressure. The same lesson applies  to the corporate athletes we train. The problem, we explain, is not so much  that their lives are increasingly stressful  as that they  are so relentlessly linear.  Typically, they  push  themselves too hard mentally and emotionally and too little  physically. Both forms of linearity undermine performance.

 The High-Performance Pyramid

Peak performance in business has often been presented as a matter of sheer brainpower, but we view performance as a pyramid. Physical well-being is its foundation. Above that rests emotional health, then mental acuity, and at the top a sense of purpose.  The ideal Performance State-peak performance under pressure- is achieve when all levels are working together.

Rituals that promote oscillation-the rhythmic expenditure and recovery of energy- link the levels of the pyramid. For instance, vigorous exercise an produce a sense of emotional well-being, clearing the way for peak mental performance.

When  we began  working  with  Marilyn  Clark, a managing director of Salomon Smith Barney, she had almost no oscillation in her life. Clark, who is in her late 30s, runs the firm’s Cleveland office. She is also the mother of three young children, and her husband is a high-powered executive  in his own right. To all appearances, Clark lives an enviable life, and she was loath  to complain about it. Yet her  hectic  lifestyle  was exacting  a cost, which became clear  after  some  probing. In the  mornings, temporarily fueled by coffee and a muffin, she was alert and energetic. By the  afternoon, though, her  energy  sagged, and she got through the rest of the day on sheer willpower. At lunchtime, when  she could  have  taken a few quiet moments  to recover,  she found  that she couldn’t  say no to employees who lined up at her office seeking counsel and support. Between the demands of her job, her colleagues, and her family, she had almost no time for herself. Her frustration quietly grew.

We began  our work with Clark by taking stock of her physical capacity. While she had been a passionate athlete as a teenager and an All-American lacrosse player  in college, her  fitness regimen for the  past  several years  had been limited  to occasional sit-ups before  bedtime. As she learned more about the relationship between energy and high performance, Clark agreed that her first priority  was to get back in shape. She wanted to feel better physically, and she knew from past experience that her mood would improve if she built  regular workouts into her schedule. Because old habits  die hard, we helped Clark establish positive rituals to replace them. Part of the work was creating  a supportive environment. The  colleagues with whom  Clark trained became a source  of cheerleading – and  even  nagging – as she  established a routine that would  have  previously  seemed  unthinkable. Clark committed to work out in a nearby  gym three days a week, precisely  at 1pm. She  also enlisted her husband to watch the kids so that she could get in a workout on Saturdays and Sundays.

Regular workouts have  helped Clark create clear work-life boundaries and restored a sense of herself as an athlete. Now, rather than  tumbling into  an energy trough in the  afternoons and  reaching for a candy bar, Clark returns to the office from her workouts feeling re-energized and  better able to focus. Physical stress has become a source not just of greater endurance but also of emotional and mental recovery; Clark finds that  she can work fewer hours and get more done. And finally, because she no longer feels chronically overburdened, she believes that she has become a better boss.“My body feels reawakened,” she says. “I’m much  more relaxed, and the  resentment  I was feeling about all the demands on me is gone.” Clark has inspired other members of her firm to take out health club memberships. She and several colleagues are subsidizing employees who can’t easily afford the cost. “We’re not  just talking to each other about business  accolades  and  who  is covering  which  account,” she says. “Now it’s also about whether we got our workouts in and how well  we’re recovering. We’re sharing  something healthy, and that has brought people together.”

The corporate athlete doesn’t  build  a strong  physical foundation by exercise  alone,  of course.  Good  sleeping and  eating  rituals  are  integral to effective  energy  management. When we first met Rudy Borneo, the vice chair- man of Macy’s West, he complained of erratic energy levels, wide mood  swings, and  difficulty  concentrating. He was also overweight. Like many  executives – and  most Americans – his eating  habits  were  poor. He typically began  his long, travel-crammed days by skipping  breakfast – the  equivalent of rolling  to the  start line of the Indianapolis 500 with  a near-empty fuel tank. Lunch  was catch-as-catch-can, and  Borneo used sugary  snacks  to fight  off his inevitable afternoon hunger pangs.  These foods spiked his blood glucose levels, giving him a quick jolt  of energy,  but one that faded  quickly.  Dinner was often  a rich, multi-course meal eaten late in the evening. Digesting  that much  food disturbed Borneo’s sleep and left him feeling sluggish and out of sorts in the mornings.


Sound familiar?

As we did with  Clark, we helped Borneo  replace  his bad habits  with positive  rituals, beginning with the  way he ate. We explained that by eating  lightly but often,  he could sustain a steady  level  of energy.  (For  a fuller  ac- count  of the foundational exercise, eating, and sleep routines, see the sidebar “A Firm Foundation.”) Borneo  now eats  breakfast every  day – typically a high-protein drink rather than  coffee and  a bagel. We also showed  him  re- search by chronobiologists suggesting  that the body and mind  need  recovery  every 90 to 120 minutes. Using that cycle as the basis for his eating schedule, he installed a refrigerator by his desk and  began  eating  five or six small but nutritious meals a day and sipping  water  frequently. He also shifted  the emphasis in his workouts to interval training, which  increased his endurance and  speed  of recovery.

In addition to prompting weight  loss and making  him feel better, Borneo’s nutritional and fitness  rituals  have had a dramatic effect on other aspects  of his life. “I now exercise for my mind as much as for my body,” he says.“At the age of 59, I have more energy than  ever, and I can sustain it for a longer  period  of time. For me, the rituals  are the  holy grail. Using them to create balance has had  an impact  on every aspect  of my life: staying more  positive, handling difficult  human resource issues, dealing  with change,  treating people  better. I really  do believe  that when  you learn  to take care of yourself, you free up energy and enthusiasm to care more for others.”


A  Firm  Foundation

Here are our basic strategies for renewing energy at the physical level. Some of them are so familiar they’ve become background noise, easy to ignore. That’s why we’re repeating them. If any of these strategies aren’t part of your life now, their absence may help account for fatigue, irritability, lack of emotional resilience, difficulty concentrating, and even a flagging sense of purpose.

1. Actually do all those healthy things you know you ought to do. Eat five or six small meals a day; people who eat just one or two meals a day with long periods in between force their bodies into a conservation mode, which translates into slower metabolism. Always eat breakfast: eating first thing in the morning sends your body the signal that it need not slow metabolism to con- serve energy. Eat a balanced diet. Despite all the conflicting nutritional research, overwhelming evidence suggests that a healthy dietary ratio is 50% to 60% complex carbohydrates, 25% to 35% protein, and 20% to 25% fat. Dramatically reduce simple sugars.

In addition to representing empty calories, sugar causes energy- depleting spikes in blood glucose levels. Drink four to five 12-ounce glasses of water daily, even if you don’t feel thirsty. As much as half the population walks around with mild chronic dehydration. And finally, on the “you know you should” list: get physically active. We strongly recommend three to four 20- to 30-minute cardiovascular workouts a week, including at least two sessions of intervals – short bursts of intense exertion followed by brief recovery periods.

2. Go to bed early and wake up early. Night owls have a much more difficult time dealing with the demands of today’s business world, because typically, they still have to get up with the early birds. They’re often groggy and unfocused in the mornings, dependent on caffeine and sugary snacks to keep up their energy. You can establish new sleep rituals. Biological clocks are not fixed in our genes.

3. Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. As important of the number of hours you sleep (ideally seven to eight) is the consistency of the recovery wave you create. Regular sleep cycles help regulate your other biological clocks and increase the likelihood that the sleep you get will be deep and restful.

4. Seek recovery every 90 to 120 minutes. Chronobiologists have found that the body’s hormone, glucose, and blood pres- sure levels drop every 90 minutes or so. By failing to seek recovery and overriding the body’s natural stress-rest cycles, overall capacity is compromised. As we’ve learned from athletes, even short, focused breaks can promote significant recovery. We suggest five sources of restoration: eat something, hydrate, move physically, change channels mentally, and change channels emotionally.

5. Do at least two weight-training workouts a week. No form of exercise more powerfully turns back the markers of age than weight training. It increases strength, retards osteoporosis, speeds up metabolism, enhances mobility, improves posture, and dramatically increases energy.


Emotional Capacity

The next building  block of IPS is emotional capacity – the internal climate that supports peak performance. During our early research, we asked hundreds of athletes to describe  how  they felt when  they  were  performing at their  best.  Invariably, they  used  words  such  as “calm,” “challenged,” “engaged,” “focused,” “optimistic,” and “con- fident.” As sprinter Marion  Jones put it shortly  after winning one of her gold medals at the Olympic Games in Sydney: “I’m out  here having  a ball. This is not  a stressful time in my life. This is a very happy  time.” When we later asked the same question of law enforcement officers, military personnel, surgeons, and corporate executives, they used remarkably similar language to describe  their  Ideal Performance State.

Just as positive  emotions ignite  the energy  that drives high performance, negative emotions– frustration, impatience, anger, fear, resentment, and sadness – drain energy. Over time, these feelings  can be literally  toxic, elevating heart rate and blood pressure, increasing muscle tension, constricting vision, and ultimately crippling performance. Anxious, fear ridden athletes are far more likely to choke in competition, for example, while anger  and frustration sabotage their  capacity  for calm focus.

The impact  of negative emotions on business  performance  is subtler  but no less devastating. Alan, an executive at an investment company, travels frequently, over- seeing a half-dozen offices around the  country. His colleagues and subordinates, we learned, considered him to be a perfectionist and an often critical boss whose frustration and impatience sometimes boiled over into angry tirades. Our work focused on helping Alan find ways to manage his emotions more effectively.  His anger,  we explained, was a reactive  emotion, a fight-or-flight response to situations he  perceived as threatening. To manage more  effectively,  he needed to transform his inner  experience of threat under stress into one of challenge.

A regular workout regimen built Alan’s endurance and gave him a way to burn off tension. But because his fierce travel  schedule often  got in the way of his workouts, we also helped him develop  a precise five-step ritual  to contain his negative emotions whenever they threatened to erupt. His initial challenge was to become more aware of signals from his body that he was on edge – physical tension, a racing  heart, tightness in his chest. When  he felt those  sensations arise, his first step was to close his eyes and  take several  deep  breaths. Next, he consciously relaxed the muscles in his face. Then, he made  an effort to soften his voice and speak more slowly. After that, he tried to put himself in the shoes of the person  who was the tar- get of his anger – to imagine what he or she must be feeling. Finally, he focused on framing his response in positive language.

Instituting this ritual  felt awkward to Alan at first, not unlike  trying  to learn  a new golf swing. More than  once he reverted to his old behavior. But within  several weeks, the  five-step drill had  become automatic – a highly  reliable  way to  short-circuit  his reactivity. Numerous employees  reported that he had  become more  reasonable, more approachable, and less scary. Alan himself says that he has become a far more effective manager.Through our work with athletes, we have learned a number  of other rituals  that help  to offset  feelings  of stress and restore positive energy. It’s no coincidence, for example, that many athletes wear headphones as they prepare for competition. Music  has  powerful physiological and emotional effects. It can prompt a shift in mental activity from the rational left hemisphere of the brain to the more intuitive right  hemisphere. It also provides  a relief from obsessive  thinking and  worrying. Finally, music  can  be a means of directly regulating energy – raising it when the time comes to perform and lowering it when it is more appropriate to decompress.

Body language also influences emotions. In one  well- known experiment, actors  were  asked  to portray anger and then were subjected to numerous physiological tests, including heart rate,  blood  pressure, core  temperature, galvanic skin response, and hormone levels. Next, the ac- tors  were  exposed  to  a situation that made  them genuinely  angry,  and  the  same  measurements were  taken. There  were  virtually  no differences in the  two profiles. Effective acting  produces precisely  the  same physiology that real emotions do. All great athletes understand this instinctively. If they  carry  themselves confidently, they will eventually start to  feel  confident, even  in highly stressful  situations. That’s  why  we train  our  corporate clients to “act as if” – consciously creating the look on the outside that they want to feel on the inside.“You are what you repeatedly do,” said Aristotle. “Excellence is not a singular act but a habit.”Close relationships are perhaps the most powerful means  for prompting positive emotions and effective  recovery. Anyone who has enjoyed  a happy  family reunion or an  evening  with  good  friends  knows  the profound sense of safety and security that these relationships can induce. Such feelings  are closely associated with the  Ideal Performance State. Unfortunately, many of the corporate athletes we train believe that in order to perform up to expectations at work, they  have  no choice  but  to stint  on their time with loved ones. We try to re-frame the issue. By devoting more time to their most important relationships and setting  clearer  boundaries between work and home, we tell our clients, they will not only derive more satisfaction  but  will also get the  recovery  that they need  to perform better at work.


Mental Capacity

The third  level of the  performance pyramid – the  cognitive – is where most traditional performance-enhancement training is aimed. The usual approaches tend  to focus on improving competencies by using techniques such as process re-engineering and  knowledge management  or by learning to use more sophisticated technology. Our training aims  to  enhance our  clients’ cognitive  capacities – most notably their focus, time management, and positive- and critical-thinking skills.

Focus simply means energy concentrated in the service of a particular goal. Anything that interferes with focus dissipates  energy. Meditation, typically viewed as a spiritual  practice, can  serve  as a highly  practical means  of training attention and promoting recovery.  At this level, no guidance from a guru is required. A perfectly adequate meditation technique involves sitting quietly and breathing deeply,  counting each  exhalation, and  starting over when you reach ten. Alternatively, you can choose a word to repeat each time you take a breath.

Practiced regularly, meditation quiets  the  mind,  the emotions, and the body, promoting energy recovery. Numerous studies  have  shown,  for  example, that experienced meditators need considerably fewer hours of sleep than  nonmeditators. Meditation and other noncognitive disciplines can also slow brain wave activity and stimulate a shift in mental activity from the left hemisphere of the brain  to the right. Have you ever suddenly found  the solution to a vexing problem while doing something “mind- less” such  as jogging, working  in the  garden, or singing in the  shower?  That’s  the  left-brain, right-brain shift  at work – the fruit of mental oscillation.

Much  of our  training at this level focuses on helping corporate athletes to consciously  manage their  time and energy.  By alternating periods  of stress  with  renewal, they  learn  to align their  work  with  the  body’s need  for breaks  every 90 to 120 minutes. This can be challenging for compulsive corporate achievers. Jeffrey Sklar, 39, man- aging director for institutional sales at the New York investment firm Gruntal & Company, had long been accustomed to topping his competitors by brute force – pushing harder and  more  relentlessly than  anyone else. With our help, he built a set of rituals that ensured regular recovery  and also enabled him to perform at a higher level while spending fewer hours at work.

Once in the morning and again in the afternoon, Sklar retreats from  the  frenetic trading floor to a quiet  office, where  he spends  15 minutes doing  deep-breathing exercises. At lunch,  he leaves the  office – something he once would  have  found  unthinkable – and walks outdoors for at least 15 minutes. He also works out five or six times  a week after work. At home, he and his wife, Sherry, a busy executive herself, made a pact never to talk business after 8 pm. They also swore off work on the weekends, and they have stuck to their vow for nearly two years. During  each of those years, Sklar’s earnings have  increased by more than  65%.

For  Jim Connor,  the  president and  CEO of FootJoy, reprioritizing his time  became a way not just to manage his energy better but to create more balance in his life and to revive his sense of passion. Connor  had come to us saying that he  felt  stuck  in a deep  rut. “My feelings were muted so I could deal with the emotional pain of life,” he explains. “I had  smoothed out  all the  vicissitudes  in my life to such an extent that oscillation was prohibited. I was not feeling life but repetitively performing it.”

Connor had imposed on himself the stricture that he be the first person to arrive at the office each day and the last to leave. In reality, he acknowledged, no one would object if he arrived  a little later or left a little earlier  a couple of days a week. He realized it also made sense for him to spend one or two days a week working at a satellite plant 45 minutes nearer to his home  than  his main  office. Doing so could boost morale at the second  plant  while cutting 90 minutes from his commute.

Immediately after  working  with  us, Connor  arranged to have  an office cleared  out  at the satellite factory.  He now spends at least one full day a week there, prompting a number of people  at that office  to  comment to  him about his increased availability. He began taking a golf lesson one morning a week, which also allowed  for a more relaxed drive to his main office, since he commutes there after  rush  hour  on  golf days. In addition, he  instituted a monthly getaway routine with his wife. In the evenings, he often  leaves his office earlier  in order  to spend  more time with his family.

Connor  has  also meticulously built  recovery  into  his workdays.“What a difference these fruit and water breaks make,” he says. “I set my alarm  watch  for 90 minutes to prevent relapses, but I’m instinctively incorporating this routine into my life and love it. I’m far more  productive as a result, and the quality  of my thought process is measurably  improved. I’m also doing more on the big things at work and not getting bogged down in detail. I’m pausing more to think and to take time out.”

Have you ever suddenly found the solution  to a vexing problem while doing something “mindless” such as jogging, working in the garden, or singing in the shower? That’s the left-brain, right-brain shift at work –the fruit of mental oscillation.


Rituals  that encourage positive  thinking also increase the  likelihood of accessing  the  Ideal Performance State. Once again, our work with top athletes has taught us the power  of creating specific mental rituals  to sustain  positive  energy.  Jack Nicklaus,  one  of the  greatest pressure performers in the history  of golf, seems to have an intuitive understanding of the importance of both oscillation and rituals. “I’ve developed a regimen that allows me to move from peaks  of concentration into  valleys of relaxation and back again as necessary,” he wrote in Golf Digest. “My focus begins  to sharpen as I walk onto  the  tee and steadily intensifies …until  I hit  [my  drive].…I  descend into a valley as I leave the tee, either through casual conversation with a fellow competitor or by letting my mind dwell on whatever happens into it.”

Visualization is another ritual  that produces positive energy  and has palpable performance results. For example, Earl Woods taught his son Tiger – Nicklaus’s heir apparent – to form  a mental image  of the  ball rolling  into the hole before each shot. The exercise does more than produce a vague feeling of optimism and well-being. Neuroscientist Ian Robertson of Trinity College, Dublin, author of Mind Sculpture, has found that visualization can literally reprogram  the neural circuitry  of the bra directly improving performance. It is to  imagine a better illustration than Laura Wilkinson. Six months before  the summer Olympics  in Sydney, Wilkinson  broke  three toes  on her right  foot  while  training. Unable  to go in the  water because  of her  cast, she instead spent  hours  a day on the diving platform, visualizing  each of her dives. With only a few weeks to actually  practice before  the Olympics, she pulled  off a huge  upset,  winning  the  gold medal  on the ten-meter platform.

If executives are to per at high levels over the long haul, they have to train in the same systematic, multilevel way that world-class athletes do.

Visualization works  just  as well in the  office. Sherry Sklar has a ritual  to prepare for any significant event  in her work life. “I always take time  to sit down in advance in a quiet  place and think  about what I really want  from the meeting,” she says. “Then I visualize myself achieving the outcome I’m after.” In effect, Sklar is building  mental muscles – increasing her strength, endurance, and flexibility. By doing so, she decreases the likelihood that she will be distracted by negative thoughts under pressure.“It has made  me  much  more  relaxed  and confident when  I go into presentations,” she says.


Spiritual Capacity

Most executives are wary of addressing the spiritual level of the performance pyramid in business settings, and understandably so. The word “spiritual” prompts conflicting emotions and doesn’t seem immediately relevant to high performance. So let’s be clear:  by spiritual capacity,  we simply mean the energy that is unleashed by tapping into one’s deepest values and defining  a strong  sense of purpose. This capacity, we have found, serves as sustenance in the face of adversity  and as a powerful source of motivation, focus, determination, and resilience.

Consider  the  case of Ann, a high-level  executive at a large cosmetics  company. For much  of her adult  life, she has tried unsuccessfully to quit smoking, blaming her failures on a lack of self-discipline. Smoking took a visible toll on her  health and  her  productivity at work – decreased endurance from shortness of breath, more sick days than her colleagues, and nicotine cravings that distracted her during  long meetings.

Four  years  ago, when  Ann  became pregnant,  she was able  to quit  immediately  and  didn’t touch  a cigarette until  the  day  her  child  was born, when  she  began  smoking  again. A year  later,  Ann  became pregnant  for a second time, and again she stopped smoking,  with virtually no symptoms of withdrawal. True  to her  pattern, she resumed smoking when her child was born. don’t  understand it,” she  told  us plaintively.

We offered  a simple explanation. As long as Ann was able to connect the impact of smoking to a deeper purpose – the health of her  unborn child – quitting was easy. She  was able  to make what we call a “values-based adaptation.” But with- out  a strong  connection to  a deeper sense  of purpose, she went back to smoking – an expedient adaptation that served  her  short-term interests. Smoking  was a sensory pleasure for Ann, as well as a way to allay her anxiety and manage social stress. Understanding cognitively  that it was unhealthy, feeling  guilty  about it on  an  emotional level, and  even  experiencing its negative effects  physically were all insufficient motivations to change  her behavior. To succeed, Ann needed a more sustaining source of motivation.

Companies can’t afford to address their employees’ cognitive capacities while ignoring their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Making such a connection, we have found,  requires regularly stepping off the  endless treadmill of deadlines and obligations  to  take time  for reflection. The inclination for busy executives is to live in a perpetual state of triage, doing whatever seems most immediately pressing  while losing sight  of any bigger  picture.  Rituals  that give people  the  opportunity to pause and look inside include  meditation, journal writing, prayer,  and service to others.  Each of these activities  can also serve as a source of recovery – a way to break the linearity of relentless goal-oriented activity.

Taking the time to connect to one’s deepest values can be extremely rewarding. It can also be painful, as a client we’ll call Richard  discovered. Richard  is a stockbroker who works in New York City and lives in a distant suburb, where  his wife stays at home  with their  three young children.  Between his long  commute and  his long  hours, Richard  spent  little  time  with his family. Like so many of our clients, he typically left home  before  his children woke up and returned around 7:30 in the  evening, feeling  exhausted and  in no  mood  to  talk to  anyone. He wasn’t happy  with his situation, but he saw no easy solution. In time,  his unhappiness began to affect  his work, which made  him even more  negative when he got home at night. It was a vicious cycle.

One evening while driving home from work, Richard found  himself  brooding about his life. Suddenly, he felt so overcome by emotion that he stopped his car at a park ten blocks from home to collect himself. To his astonishment, he  began  to  weep.  He  felt  consumed with  grief about his life and  filled with  longing  for his family. After  ten  minutes, all Richard wanted to do was get home and hug his wife and children.  Accustomed to giving their dad a wide berth at the end of the day, his kids were understandably bewildered when  he  walked  in that evening with  tears  streaming down  his face and  wrapped them  all in hugs. When  his wife arrived  on the scene, her first thought was that he’d been fired.

The  next  day, Richard  again  felt  oddly  compelled to stop  at the  park  near  his house. Sure  enough, the  tears returned and  so did the  longing.  Once again, he rushed home  to  his family.  During  the  subsequent two years, Richard  was able  to count  on one  hand  the number of times  that he failed  to stop  at the same  location for at least  ten  minutes. The  rush of emotion subsided  over time, but his sense that he was affirming what mattered most in his life remained as strong as ever.

Richard  had  stumbled into  a ritual  that allowed  him both  to disengage from work and to tap into a profound source  of purpose and meaning – his family. In that con- text, going home ceased  to be a burden after  a long day and  became instead a source  of recovery  and  renewal. In turn,  Richard’s distraction at work diminished, and he became more focused, positive, and productive – so much so that he was able to cut down on his hours. On a practical level, he created a better balance between stress and recovery.  Finally, by tapping into  a deeper sense of purpose, he found  a powerful new source of energy for both his work and his family.

In a corporate environment that is changing at warp speed, performing consistently at high levels is more difficult and more necessary  than  ever. Narrow interventions simply  aren’t  sufficient any more. Companies can’t afford to address their employees’  cognitive  capacities while ignoring their physical, emotional, and spiritual well- being. On the playing field or in the boardroom, high performance depends as much on how people renew and recover  energy  as on how they expend  it, w they manage their lives as much as on how they e their work. When people feel strong and re- physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – form better, with more passion, for longer. They win, their families win, and the corporations that employ them win.

Jim Loehr, a performance  psychologist, has worked with hundreds  of professional athletes, including Monica Seles, Dan Jansen, and Mark O’Meara.Loehr is also a cofounder and  the CEO of LGE Performance  Systems  in Orlando, Florida, a consulting firm that  applies training  principals developed in sports to business executives.He can be reached at  

Tony Schwartz  is executive vice president of LGE and the author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (Bantam, 1996), and Work in Progress, with Michael Eisner (Random House, 1998).He can be reached at

The Making of a Corporate Athlete

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