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Resilience Trends at the Top: Fat Cats No More

Leadership is fueled by human energy...and it begins with expanding our own energetic potential.

Barry Posner, leadership professor at Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business, has observed an emerging trend in keeping with my own observations regarding CEOs today.  We are both hard-pressed to name a single Fortune 500 CEO who is terribly overweight.  Recent research at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) that followed 757 executives over a five-year period identified a similar trend.  Top executives were healthier than the average American.  They drank less alcohol, smoked less, and were much more likely to exercise regularly.  CCL also found that the fitness of an executive influenced the perception of their energy level, self-discipline, and competence.

“Fat Cats” no more, the era of the “Martini Mad Men” is long gone.  Today’s superhuman demands require it.  Arianna Huffington thought that she had it all:  money and power.  She learned the hard way that money and power are no substitute for something as foundational as sleep and a healthy lifestyle.  In 2007, working eighteen-hour days, Huffington passed out in her office and woke up in a pool of blood from a broken cheekbone and cuts over one eye.  After an extensive medical examination, she was told that she was suffering from exhaustion.

Since then, Huffington has been dedicated to building resilience and vitality.  She has been on a crusade to promote a healthier work culture and lifestyle, as well as to redefine success.  Through her books, Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, as well as her website, ThriveGlobal.com, she makes her case.  She argues for cutting back on working hours, as well as de-stressing and supporting well-being.  She promotes the science around why we need restful sleep and ways to ensure high-quality sleep, starting with not bringing our smartphones into the bedroom.  While Huffington wants us to slow down, take better care of ourselves, and get enough sleep, she also wants us to consider her metrics for success beyond money and power:  “well-being, wisdom, a capacity for wonder, and giving.”

Most of the CEOs I advise have some type of energy-building, fitness, and lifestyle-support routine.  These range from daily swims, Pilates, yoga, and triathlon or marathon training to meditation, massage, and preventative medicine.  Most have created routines that are a combination of practices that suit them.

Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, a $70 billion retailer with 341,000 employees, is a great example of this emerging trend of fit executives.  Looking at Brian, anyone can see that he is just that – fit, energetic, and ready to take on the world.  Jonathan Dahl and Tierney Remick interviewed Brian for Korn Ferry’s Briefings magazine and asked him about his resilience-building practices and how they support his vitality:

“Well, there are a few, and all have to do with energy management, much like an athlete who is preparing for competition.  When I’m getting ready for a big meeting, I make sure that I get the right combination of rest and preparation time.  If someone on my team tells me, “Brian, I was up until 2:00 a.m. working on this presentation and came back to the office at 7:00 a.m.,” that tells me that they might be prepared, but do I want this person to lead a big meeting or make an important decision when they are completely fatigued?

Our culture has sent a message that operating with a sleep deficit is some kind of badge of honor.  I don’t agree.  Also, I like to only take forty-five minutes for one-hour meetings.  Why?  We all need mental and personal breathers in our day.  Maybe you can use that time to call home, take a short walk to recharge, or have a healthy snack.  Optimal resilience and energy require small but crucial behaviors to ensure that we all are prepared to perform.”

While physical fitness is an important part of resilience, Arianna Huffington and Brian Cornell make an excellent point about sleep.  Studies in neuroscience show that sleep is not just rest for the body.  It is during sleep, or even quiet times, that an essential process of the brain takes place.  It is a sort of cleansing process, when new neurons and new synapses get formed and re-connected.

When we, as leaders, authentically model fitness and resilience, we have a chance to embed it into our culture.  Moving ourselves and those around us from the efficiency of time management to the more life-supporting, transformative potential of energy leadership is crucial to fueling sustained success.  Enterprise Leadership is fueled by human energy…and it begins with expanding our own energetic potential.

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