7. Build Your Leadership Endurance – Peak Leadership Fitness:Elevating Your Leadership Game



Are you prepared to go the distance? After all, leadership is an endurance activity. It requires advanced energy, focus, and stamina, because you are routinely working toward and bringing your best.

However, leadership is not about being perfect. I’m sorry to wait this long to tell you, but there’s no such thing as the “perfect leader.” The leadership journey is one of continuous improvement. Once you achieve today’s peak leadership fitness goals, you can set new, more challenging goals for tomorrow.

The key lies in your effort. As I discussed in chapter 3, effort is related to your mindset and whether you believe you have the ability to influence outcomes based upon your effort. This also directly ties to the second fitness principle: You must put in the work. Putting in the work—in fitness terms, putting in some good reps—is an important part of building strength and endurance.

The Exchange of Action, Feedback, and Reflection

Endurance is about sustainable performance. Action alone does not elevate endurance. You’ve got to balance action with feedback and reflection, which are recovery activities that result in new perspectives, behaviors, and habits. The best leaders—those who continuously grow and improve—have found a way to incorporate this exchange of action, feedback, and reflection into their regular routine. They identify and capitalize on the learning moments that exist around them (Figure 7-1).

Figure 7-1. The Exchange of Action, Feedback, and Reflection

Take Action

The best way to build endurance is by combining strength and cardio activities, putting in focused effort, reducing the amount of rest between activities, and combining movement. Similarly, your leadership development actions require effort, focus, and variety. Action without them does not result in sustainable performance improvements.

There is a fine line between effort intensity and performance. Go too hard, and you risk burnout or injury. Put in less effort, and your performance, and ultimately endurance, will be limited.

There are countless examples demonstrating the consequences of missing the mark across both sport and leadership. For example, many people train extensively for an endurance event, such as a marathon, only to get a stress fracture or other overuse injury and then not be able to compete. On the other hand, some people may be able to “get by” without much training, but for how long and how well? Just the words alone—get by—suggest apathy and a lack of commitment to excellence. I know people who have trained very little and completed a marathon. Impressive? Perhaps, but I hope by now you understand the difference between checking a box and being at your best. They can say they’ve completed a marathon, but they likely did not do it to the best of their ability.

Few leaders over-train. Unfortunately, too many leaders try to get by without focusing on their development. They lack focus or intensity. Without a plan, there are simply too many competing activities that get in the way. Leaders can have the best intentions. They can log in a lot of hours on the job. They can even say they are leaders by title, but are they working toward their peak fitness? Sometimes leaders can even get in their own way.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Clark was a well-respected leader at a regional technology company. He joined four years after it was founded and recently celebrated his 20-year anniversary there. From his earliest days with the company, Clark built a reputation as being a hard-driving, intense associate who delivers results. He was also well liked for his positive, can-do attitude and willingness to help wherever needed.

When it came to projects, Clark went the extra mile—putting in as much time as necessary to get the work done. Often, this included working late nights and weekends. Over the years, his dedication and accomplishments were recognized and rewarded. Thanks to multiple promotions, he advanced from being an individual contributor to managing increasingly complex projects with greater visibility. But then he started to notice his promotion rate slowing down, and he began to wonder whether his career had plateaued. In fact, it had taken more than six years for him to be promoted into his current role of managing a team in an emerging service area. However, he was thrilled for the opportunity because the role was well suited to grow within the highly regarded R&D function, and it was his first role carrying significant leadership responsibilities.

Because this was unfamiliar territory from both a leadership and functional standpoint, Clark’s supervisor, Kevin, suggested that he enroll in the company’s first-time and emerging leaders course and shadow some current R&D leaders. Neither the course nor the shadowing were a directive, but Kevin knew firsthand they would help set Clark up for success because he had participated in the first cohort and shadowed several leaders from across the company.

Clark appreciated the support but was reluctant to attend because it would take him away from his job for three days. In all the years he worked for the company, the only training he had attended was his new employee orientation. And that was nearly 20 years ago. Besides, he was always too busy. Whenever an invitation came out about a training class, he would say, “Why bother? You’re not going to teach this old dog, any new tricks.” The first time he referenced being an old dog, he was barely in his 30s. And he continued using that saying to deflect any future invitations. So, it was no surprise that when Kevin suggested he attend the course, Clark’s reply was the same.

To Kevin’s suggestion of setting up a shadow or mentoring relationship with one of Clark’s peers, Clark simply replied, “Woof!” and smiled.

Kevin decided not to push and let Clark handle his career however he saw best.

In typical fashion, Clark immersed himself in his new role. But this time things were different. He was challenged by his new responsibilities and the need to make time to meet with and develop his team. He also had a different level of visibility within the company as well as with clients. He was used to being behind the scenes on projects, so there was a clear need to adjust.

Clark’s effort along with a favorable market led to several successes. His team grew from six associates to 23. His reputation of being a hard driver was reinforced with each passing project. But this time what had previously been viewed as a positive was now a negative. Clark’s drive and commitment as an individual contributor had been highly regarded. As a leader of others, it was backfiring.

He was so focused on growing his area of the business that he set the same lofty expectations for his team, like routinely working nights and weekends. He rarely if ever provided any positive feedback or celebrated any of the team’s successes. It was always onto the next project.

The pace, intensity, and expectations drove some highly talented people away. Some went to other parts of the organization and others left the company. Clark’s performance review continued to show high marks for business results, moderate scores for connecting to the business, and lower scores on people development. On multiple occasions, Kevin gave Clark the feedback from the departing members of his team. He even suggested some leadership classes Clark could take, as well as articles and books to read. But Clark deflected each time. He replied that he was “too busy delivering results to get into that stuff.” And the pattern continued.

When Marsha, the company’s senior vice president of R&D, announced that she was retiring, Clark was confident that he would land the job as her successor. In many ways, he had been working toward that role since he took on his current role. Additionally, he had delivered some impressive business results over that time. Kevin tried to manage Clark’s expectations by reminding him of areas he needed to develop and the scale and scope of the role.

When Clark was invited to attend a meeting with the executive team, he was confident that it was to announce his promotion. To his surprise however, they told him they were promoting one of his peers, Lisa, into the position. Clark had a lot of respect for Lisa, but she had only been with the company for five years and hadn’t delivered nearly the same results as him.

Almost speechless, Clark asked the executive team why not him? He reminded them of some of his results and his commitment to the company. They acknowledged and appreciated all his contributions and hoped that they would continue.

Then Debbie, the senior vice president of sales and marketing, said, “Your results speak for themselves, Clark. You’ve done some wonderful things for us. Everyone knows how energized you get about the projects and how driven you are to get them done well. However, when it comes to your leadership, the results just aren’t there when it comes to developing your talent. There have been too many instances where great, talented people leave our organization after working on your team. And the other key part of this job is making strong connections across the business. You do a great job focusing on your area, but you haven’t connected much beyond that.”

“But the results,” stuttered Clark, still in shock.

“Imagine the results you would have gotten if you were able to retain some of that talent and develop some of the company’s future leaders,” Debbie said. “This is a big role, and we believe that with proper focus on your development, you could be a great option for other roles in the future.”

Clark thanked the group, his head still spinning from the news, and vowed that he would work on being a better leader. His next stop was Kevin’s office to tell him the news. He apologized for not taking Kevin’s advice in the past and asked for his assistance: “This dog needs some help. I want to change my ways. I want to be a better leader.”

Kevin gave Clark some homework: “Think about why you want to become a better leader. Take a couple days to reflect on it. Then, let’s come back together and discuss your purpose and come up with a plan. We’ll get you some additional feedback so we know where we stand and what else, if anything, to focus on. And we’ll come up with the right activities for you. You’re going to need to put in the work, though.”

A good lesson for everyone? Never say an old dog can’t learn new tricks. We are living in a constantly changing world that affects all aspects of business, from communication to R&D. Claiming you can’t or don’t need to learn something new is a death warrant for your career.

Ample opportunity to focus on the right development activities is all around us. There are a variety of activities to consider as part of your routine, but what most people don’t realize is that opportunities for learning and growth are all around them every day. With the proper feedback and reflection, think about what you can learn from preparing for a big presentation, giving feedback to a colleague or direct report, or collaborating with a peer from across the company.

Many fitness experts emphasize muscle confusion to achieve optimal fitness. Leadership development is no different. Variety in your development activities reinforces learning, keeps you engaged with your development, and motivates you to stick with it.

Seek Feedback

Building endurance requires testing and reframing your limits. The best way you can do this is through feedback. Chapter 4 discussed the importance of feedback and being open to it. For you to continue to progress toward your peak leadership fitness, you need to not only be open to feedback, but also be proactive in obtaining and acting upon it.

Feedback can come from many sources—your boss, peers, direct reports, friends, family, and yourself. It is less important where feedback comes from than that it is good, honest, and accurate. This kind of feedback from multiple sources is much more powerful. It should not be personal or judgmental, but based on observations. It should be specific to something you did and relative to expectations or a goal. For example, if you have never given a presentation to a large group or executive team, it is not reasonable to expect that you will be perfect on your first attempt. However, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass on whatever the activity is.

Unless you did something particularly well or poorly, there is a good chance feedback will not find its way to you on its own. Giving good, honest, and constructive feedback can be uncomfortable. You need to be proactive and specific to those who are providing feedback to you. Prior to initiating the activity, make sure there is a clear set of expectations about your performance. Then, immediately following the activity, your first question should be, “How did I do relative to the expectations we discussed?” The next question should be, “What could I do better?” followed closely by, “When can I give it another go?”

Pause and Reflect

One of the most essential elements to how we learn as adults is to pause and reflect—to think about what just occurred, make sense of it, and figure out how you can learn from it. Our ability to reflect is one of the few important characteristics that separate us from other species. Because it is viewed by some to be on the “softer” side of leadership, I like to refer to it as the “R” word. However, reflection does not require extensive meditation techniques.

Reflection is the heartbeat of learning. It can be initiated by something routine or a disorienting dilemma followed by self-examination, a critical assessment of assumptions, an exploration and trial of options, restored self-confidence, or even a new perspective.

The reflection process allows you to recover, make connections, and make sense of the vast amount of information coming at you all day, every day. It allows you to reappraise, regenerate, regulate, refocus, and re-energize, as well as clear the clutter from your mind and open yourself to the possibilities of the new. The results can be quite profound because it is where learning occurs—that aha moment where discovery meets possibilities.

That may sound nice, but in today’s fast-paced, results-oriented business world, it can prove difficult to implement. The reality for too many leaders is that there just isn’t time built into the day to pause, much less reflect. After all, you’ve got deadlines.

It does not need to be difficult, though. With practice, you can pause and reflect quickly and in the moment, such as on your way to a meeting, in the elevator, or even in the shower or while working out. The best way reflect is to ask yourself several key questions: What happened? How does that fit with what I already know? What would I do the same or differently in the future? You can certainly take it further by considering aspects of an event that stood out to you, how the action and result fit with your assumptions, the overall impact to you and others, and how it changed your thinking and future actions.

A word of caution—if you don’t build in time for reflection, two things happen. First, your ability to learn, grow, improve, and optimize performance will be greatly diminished. Second, over time, this will lead to stress and burnout. Therefore, you must find time to pause and reflect.

Building Good Habits and Routines

Habits begin with a choice. They include what you believe or the way you think about certain topics (mental and spiritual), what you do (physical), and the people you interact with (relational). For you to be successful in moving toward your peak leadership fitness, you will most likely need to build and incorporate new habits and routines, and possibly eliminate some bad ones.

In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock (2009) points out that the making of a habit is rooted in the physiology of our brain and how we store information. He explains that habits are based on three elements: need, action, and reward. You need a cue that directs your brain to go into automatic mode, a physical or mental response, and a reward that tells your brain whether the item was worth remembering. Over time, this becomes an automatic response and a habit is born.

Habits can easily become quite powerful and ingrained. That’s good news for the good habits, but not so much for the bad ones. In Marshall Goldsmith’s 2015 book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be, he points out that you will just need to work harder to change the bad habits. He explains how these triggers can be people or situations that bait us into behaving in a way that is inconsistent with how we envision ourselves. He acknowledges the importance in choice, which requires awareness of the behavior.

As you get into the groove with your leadership development activities, the more you recognize a need to change and are motivated to do so. Eventually you will come to instinctively pursue—or perhaps even crave—more growth and development. If you don’t have a strong need or purpose to be the best leader you can be, you will likely delay or ignore your leadership development. There simply will not be a strong enough reason to act.

You can try out any number of activities described in this book, and you will likely see some positive results. However, I want to help you build your leadership capabilities for the long haul. This is about your endurance. To achieve this, you will need some strong motivation and purpose to get you started, push you through the challenging times, and help you stick with your development routine. Why do you want to be a leader? What drives you to want to be your best? What is the reason that anything less than your best is unacceptable? Only you can answer that question, and once you do, you are much more likely to be unstoppable.

Once you have a clearly defined compelling reason to be at your best, there are two other steps you should take to build your leadership fitness habits. First, select the right development activities to incorporate into your routine. These activities engage and challenge you and are accessible to you. Being realistic is very important here. There is also a delicate balance between operating outside your comfort zone and pursuing activities you simply don’t like. If you select something unrealistic or untenable, you are likely to either give up or never start. And that gets you nowhere. Second, get some early victories. It is a terrific way to take steps in the right direction, show progress, and ultimately build a habit. It will also help get you engaged and reinforce the possibilities.

As you get started, however, you may need to break some old, unhealthy habits. These are the behaviors that are preventing you from being at your best. Some may be a matter of personal preference, while others may go against your organization’s culture. Some examples of unhealthy personal leadership habits include not walking around to connect with your associates, keeping your office door closed, excessively checking your devices and not focusing on the individual or meeting, raising your voice to associates, taking credit for someone else’s work, and gossiping. There are countless other examples.

Building the Endurance of Leadership

A leader fields lots of questions and should be happy to offer answers in return. Going out of your way to seek answers to more questions builds the endurance of leadership.

Chuck was a quiet, reserved leader at a technology firm that produced hardware and software systems for three huge vertical markets. His endurance was legendary—he’d been through everything from a former CEO who trashed a hotel room during a user group meeting to the current one, who kept a loaded pistol in his desk drawer.

Chuck had been an editor for trade publications, as well as a software coder, and now he ran marketing. In short, he had built lots of credibility and endurance into his leadership. Customers knew he would give them the honest answer. “Ask Chuck” was the safety valve in many conversations.

But the company’s platform was proprietary at a time when PC standards were becoming the darlings. The company needed to change, and Chuck knew it.

The gun-toting CEO spent time arguing with the banks to forestall bankruptcy, but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere. In the end, Chuck left the firm, which signaled to everyone inside and out that the company was going under. After that, departures were swift.

Once again, Chuck was leading, and those who followed learned something about skill building, flexibility, and career endurance. He’s still at it, now teaching computer science at a college to the next generation of leaders, who’ll get to hear some profound, crazy stories.

Many unhealthy habits reflect professional immaturity or insecurity. Whether they’re a personal habit or part of the cultural norm, be aware of the kinds of messages your habits are sending and the impact they have.

In the Nick of Time

Barbara was an accomplished and highly sought-after executive. She had delivered some impressive results and her work had won multiple, significant awards. She was a thought leader in her field, and few possessed her unique mix of accomplishments, global experience, and history of success.

A recruiter contacted Barbara about an opportunity at a Fortune 100 company. Having someone of her caliber on the team would lead to significantly increased business value in terms of new product development and the ability to expand into emerging markets. Although she was not looking to make a career move, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Barbara had admired the company from a distance for a long time—it was prestigious, and the role was perfectly suited to her. After much reflection, she agreed to an interview.

Her first round of interviews was intense. The schedule included individual meetings with seven senior leaders from across the company starting at 9 a.m. and continuing over the course of the day.

She arrived early, wanting to make a good impression and have enough time for checking in. She was greeted warmly by a member of the HR team, and brought to a bright conference room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city. As she sat waiting for her first interviewer to arrive, she watched the time tick by … 9:00 … 9:05 … 9:10 … 9:15.

When the senior leader finally arrived, she was nearly 20 minutes past the scheduled time. After introducing herself, she then proceeded with the interview—there was no acknowledgment or apology for being late. The interview went well, and the senior leader was engaging and focused. However, Barbara couldn’t help but be distracted by her tardiness. The interview ended as scheduled, and then Barbara waited for the next senior leader to arrive. The same thing happened this time, although her second interviewer arrived just short of 15 minutes late.

As the day continued, each senior leader arrived late to the interview—not by just a few minutes, but between 20 and 40 minutes late. The seventh and final person showed up with only five minutes left in their meeting time.

Barbara left for the day somewhat confused and disappointed. Each of the interviews had gone well; the senior leaders were cordial, engaging, and focused. But she couldn’t get over how late each one had been. She finally concluded that the role was not as important for the company as she’d been led to believe, and their actions suggested they weren’t that interested in her as a candidate.

A few days later, as previously arranged, the recruiter followed up to discuss her perspective and interest. To her surprise, the recruiter reiterated the importance of the role. He also noted how impressed everyone was with her, and how much of a difference they thought she could make at the company. In fact, she was their leading candidate, and they couldn’t wait to bring her back for the next phase of interviews.

When he turned the conversation over to her, Barbara was honest about what she liked and didn’t like. When she asked about the interviewers’ tardiness, he said that it was just the way it was there. Barbara decided to take some additional time to think about the feedback and invitation to the next phase.

The next day, she contacted the recruiter with her decision. She wanted to forgo the invitation and remove herself from consideration.

A leader, or an organization, may have other unhealthy habits that are mostly unseen or taken for granted, yet having a negative impact. Examples include working regularly with your office door closed, not checking in with your associates, and giving negative feedback to an employee in front of other team members. So how can you know if something you are doing is an unhealthy habit? You can learn from two sources—either you know it yourself or someone tells you about it. This starts with self-awareness: If you don’t know that something you do is having a negative effect and no one tells you, that is where the notion of a blind spot comes in. The subtler habits can be difficult to identify because the tendency is for people—both leaders and those around them—to overlook them. That is where good, honest feedback comes in. Once you know about an unhealthy habit, it’s up to you whether you care enough to take action.

Tracking Your Performance

Building your leadership endurance requires intention and effort over the long term. It requires action and attention on your part. And it requires that you balance leadership stability and agility. The very essence of learning is helping you be more agile. Complacency, however—that is, settling for good enough—is a leader’s worst enemy. You should not settle for good enough, nor can you afford to put your leadership on automatic pilot and hope for the best. You can want to run a marathon and even set a training plan and go for a couple runs. But if you stop after a few runs, it is unlikely that your goal of running a marathon will be accomplished. And it is certain that it won’t be accomplished as well as it could be.

Similarly, you can want to be a better leader. However, you must take the necessary steps to be a better leader. You can make yourself all sorts of promises. You can even finish this book with a fitness plan in hand, take the first few actions, and then get caught up in old routines that yielded inconsistent results. Remember, intention with no action will not yield results.

If you are going to take on an endurance activity such as leadership, you must prepare yourself. You cannot simply show up without training or preparation and expect good, let alone great, results. There won’t be someone looking over your shoulder every step of the way to make sure you are continuing to elevate your leadership skills. You have got to own this. You’ve got to take personal initiative.

You will likely experience an obstacle or resistance along the way. But if your leadership fitness is important to you, you have to find a way around any challenges. The more preparation you put in, the more fit you will be to overcome challenges and optimize your performance.

The foundation you build and the actions you take will go a long way toward building your endurance. However, action alone is not enough. You need regular, honest, and accurate feedback, as well as opportunities for recovery. You’ve got to be willing to try new and better leadership actions. Having established good habits to rely on will certainly help you on the path to continuous improvement, lifelong learning, and ultimately peak leadership fitness.

Fitness Tips to Build Your Leadership Endurance

Once you achieve a leadership fitness goal, set a new one.

Prior to undertaking a leadership activity, ask a trusted colleague to provide feedback at the end. Be specific on what they should look for.

Seek recovery by pausing and reflecting on your leadership and what you are learning.

Have a clear and compelling reason for why you want to be the best leader you can be.

Set a rule in your house for a device-free zone and device-free hours.

Take your first step toward peak leadership fitness today.