How have you ended your work year? Did you enter the holiday season feeling grounded, confident and complete, or did you hobble to the finish line, every resource spent on a year’s hard work? For most people, including many leaders, it is the latter. In this age of relentless pressure and increasing expectation to perform, it is easy to push yourself beyond your limits. Add the extra pressures of parenting, relationships, finances, the socio-political climate and environmental concerns, and it is plain to see why more and more leaders face burnout and exhaustion. It has never been more important for leaders to practice effective energy management – not just for themselves, but for the benefit of everyone they impact.
Human beings are at a curious point in development: we are more head than body. While cultures across the globe have traditions of philosophy dating back hundreds of years, our bias for intellectual prowess really shifted gears with the western Age of Enlightenment that began in the 18th Century. Unlike the interpretation of ‘enlightenment’ espoused in the eastern mystical traditions – the total transcendence of the personal ego or limited self – this period was defined by a movement towards rational thinking and empiricism as the primary arbiters of truth. Also known as the Age of Reason, it was a sea change that had a deep and lasting impact on western culture and beyond. From it sprang an ardent belief in Science as Saviour, with its multitude of benefits in the areas of medicine, transport, industry, technology, agriculture, cosmology, and countless fields beyond. In less than 300 years, humans have made more progress in these areas than all 50 000 years of the species’ history that preceded the Enlightenment.
It wasn’t long before the Industrial Revolution dawned, and mechanization led to increased efficiencies in primary and secondary industries. Labour was taken from man and handed to machines. Symbolically, humans no longer needed their bodies to produce, they needed their intellect. It’s no surprise then, that thinking and cognitive intelligence became the most prized commodities in the rainbow of human capacities. Intelligence itself was reduced to the concept of IQ, a perspective that still dominates the mainstream view, despite the growing understanding that we have a multitude of different Intelligence. The result? We’re all in our heads. A lot. And we’ve lost connection with the body. As educational maverick Sir Ken Robinson suggests, most people look upon their bodies as ‘a way of getting their heads to meetings’. This is a major problem.
Why we get energy management wrong
Ask most people if they’re tired, or hungry, or underslept, and they’ll think about it. They’ll think about how well their mind is working, or when they had their last meal, or how many hours sleep they had the night before. But they won’t tune into the greatest technology available for making such judgments: the body.
The postmodern view of the body as a primitive machine overlooks its highly sophisticated ability to interpret and distribute information. The body makes decisions considerably faster than our conscious minds and provides us with far more authentic clues about our physical reality. Through a combination of will and mental power, we are easily able to override our body’s natural indicators of low energy, allowing us to move into the ‘wired but tired’ state in which we feel energized, but are in fact exhausted. Continued operation from this place eventually leads to burnout, disease, anxiety, depression and a host of maladies that are considered commonplace in today’s working culture.
But, listening to the body and what it is trying to tell us, is a deeply intelligent approach that opens us to truly effective energy management. And energy management is key because without consistent and sustainable energy we are incapable of doing anything meaningful in the world. This is true of every human being, but for leaders, who cast a greater sphere of influence than those around them, the motivation moves from desirability to responsibility.
Why leaders need to make it count
In her book, Neuroscience for Leadership, MIT neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart posits that leaders face a different type of stress from those around them because
I. They need to make decisions that carry greater risk
II. They are constantly subjected to public scrutiny
III. They generally have higher workloads
Yet, the most successful leaders show biometric indications of lower stress. Why? Because such leaders have either intuitively or through training learned to balance their body-mind. Psychology and physiology are strongly integrated – our thoughts affect our body’s behavior, and our body’s behavior affects our thoughts. Stress originates in this connection between body and mind, which is why anxiety has correlative sensations like tense muscles and tightness in the chest, and depression reveals itself in fatigue, insomnia, and decreased libido.
As we’ve discussed before, learning to optimally manage this relationship between the mental and physical is critical to leaders, as they set the psycho-emotional tone for their teams and organizations. Group success depends on their ability to manage their energy and, therefore, their stress. And their ability to manage their energy relies on their capacity for reading the communications of the body.
How to read the body
The body is constantly sending us messages, but most of the time we aren’t listening. In my work with leaders, I am always amused by the number of leaders who nod off during a 5-minute mindfulness practice. This isn’t because they’re doing something wrong, it’s simply because they are far more tired than they realize. When asked if they felt tired before the practice, most say they’re stretched but they’re okay. Yet, given a few minutes to disengage from the cortisol-driven activation of their work lives, their bodies tell the truth: they are exhausted.
So, the first step to successful energy management is learning how to tune into the body. By getting to know the body’s signals, and checking into them regularly, we are able to be more honest about our state of being. It’s easy to get distracted by work and our thoughts – checking into the body is the best way of finding out if we are hungry, thirsty or tired. Mindfulness is a powerful tool for doing this, specifically the Body Scan.
TRY NOW: a 10-minute body scan by Tara Brach
Once we begin to use the body as a source of information (physical and emotional) we can use that information to make better decisions. That is why this understanding is a pre-condition for the other important areas of energy management, like exercise, nutrition and rest. For example, though exercise is undoubtedly a valuable component of healthy energy management, sometimes what we need most in that moment is rest. But we don’t know unless we ask our bodies first.
Through continued focus and awareness, any person can learn to tap into the innate wisdom of the body. However, for the 21st Century leader who wishes to make a positive impact, this is not just a nice-to-have, it is a necessity.