One of the biggest challenges of working with people around leadership – especially in the corporate world – is breaking through some of the enduring myths about what leadership should be and look like. Old, perhaps outdated, archetypes still loom large. Ways of working from another era have become etched into the collective consciousness.
The 1980s was not only a decade of terrible fashion and inexplicable music; it was also responsible for cementing some incredibly unhelpful beliefs about modern leadership. These found their most popular expression in the movie Wall Street: Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko standing before a baying boardroom of stripey-shirted alpha males declaring “Lunch is for wimps”. Because – it was said – to lead you had to dominate; work harder and longer than your competitors; never let up for a moment or risk being left behind.
I should make it clear that I myself am a child of the 80s, and have a lot of affection for the decade too. One of my earliest memories is of watching Carl Lewis sweep the board at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. I remember being fascinated by the sheer strangeness of watching him in full flight – his legs cycling in mid-air during the long jump, his flat palms pumping during the 100 metres and, most of all, the sight of his cheeks and mouth flapping about as he hurtled towards the finish line. My 7-year old brain couldn’t understand why his face should do that! Shouldn’t he be a mask of concentration and furious effort?
One the contrary, legendary sprint coach Charlie Francis said:“The number one secret to greater speed is relaxation…relaxation must become second nature…you may feel like you’re not generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble), but remember, only the net force counts!”
By ‘net force’ he means the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the resistance generated by a muscle which is tensed. Tense muscles cannot expand and contract with the incredible speed and consistency that a world-class sprinter requires, so sprinters who are tense cannot succeed at the highest level.
But relaxation isn’t just necessary for sprinters to perform at their best – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people perform better at an incredibly broad range of tasks if they are in a place of physical and mental relaxation rather than tension.
Just think about your own experience – how do you behave differently when you are relaxed compared to when you are tense? How are you different at work, with your family, with your partner, with your friends? How does being relaxed or tense impact on the way that you engage in activities that mean something to you? How does being relaxed or tense affect the way that you pursue your goals, interact with people, live and lead.
Like those sprinters who run themselves into trouble, we can all make the mistake of thinking that the key to being effective and having an impact is to work harder, to exert all our energy in pursuit of our goals – in the belief that the harder we work, the more force we exert, the better we will perform. What most of us know from experience is that that is worker harder rarely means working smarter.
My challenge to you is to experiment with adopting a relaxed perspective as you approach the stuff that means most to you in life – to hold those things calmly and lightly in the palm of your hand rather than crush them with the pressure of your expectation and desire. As a leader the questions then becomes ‘what is the impact I want to have?’ rather than ‘what is the result that I need to achieve?”’
How do you relax? Do you create space in your day for downtime, reflection and relaxation? Do you move through the day like Carl Lewis – gracefully, and purposefully powering towards his destiny – or are you so consumed by tension and anxiety that you find yourself tying up like one of the athletes left trailing in his wake?
If you want to have a powerful, sustainable impact without burning out or burning out those around you, you need to remember the words of those other 1980s soothsayers, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – and just Relax.
Jon is an experienced training facilitator and performance coach, based in London and specialising in working with people around health, wellbeing and resilience. With a background in psychology, and health and social care, he now works with a range of clients within the corporate and the public sector. In recent years these have included Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, the NHS, local London Borough Social Services, and a number of high-profile charities.
His focus is on helping people to maximise their energy and enhance their motivation so that they can perform at their best at work and at home. @blueprintcoach