Healthy leadership – Mens sana in corpore sano


What does it take to become a top performer?
And once you have reached the top, what does it take to stay there? Easy questions you might say but probably much more difficult to come up with an answer. Defining what exactly construes a top performance may already fill a couple of book-shelves. Most of us are likely to describe a top performance on the basis of our personal experiences. In other words, we recognize a top performance or top performer once we have seen one. In sports, one of my favorite past times, top performance is usually associated with winners.

Now what makes a winner?

Ingredients such as talent, dedication, training, hard work, competition, peak at the right moment but also blood, sweat and tears, disappointments, injuries etc. come to mind. With the professionalization of the sports sector training methods, scientific developments, innovation and sponsorships have reached new levels of sophistication. What made you a winner yesterday, a world champion even, may not make you a finalist today let alone a credible competitor tomorrow. Records are set to be broken. Be it Usain Bolt running the 100 meters in 09.58 seconds (2009) or Javier Sotomayor, jumping over 2.45 meters (1993) with the Fosbury flop technique that was only developed in 1968 after many decades using a different technique.

With the professionalization of the sports sector the support system behind the sportsman or woman has also seen significant change. In the past, there was a single trainer who took care of the actual training of the athlete and that was it. Nowadays, top-sportsmen and women are surrounded by a dedicated team of specialists. There’s the agent, who takes care of the schedule, the marketing and the public image of the athlete. There’re the various coaches e.g. for technique, speed, strength, durability but also the mental coach. There is the nutritionist dealing with the diet of the athlete, the physiotherapist for the musculature. And so on. Due to continuous innovation and changing circumstances the performance levels go up almost daily around the world. To compete as an athlete in such an environment is incredibly challenging. To become a winner is even more difficult. To become a top performer who stays at the top for a prolonged period of time is almost beyond imagination. Take tennis as an example. Recently Rafael Nadal became number 1 of the world, followed by Roger Federer. Both players were in the same number 1 position in 2008 and 2004 respectively. How on earth did they manage to stay at the top for such a long time. Serena Williams is another example together with her sister Venus. Since 2002 they have been dominating the rankings.

So, let’s now compare top performance in the world of sports with top performers in the corporate business sector. What are the similarities and what are the differences? Talent, dedication, hard work are certainly the same ingredients that contribute to success in the corporate world as well. How many injuries or disappointments though are acceptable in the world of business. How many “come back kids” have we come across in our corporate experience? Compare the Williams sisters who have been performing at top level for 16 years now and are still going strong with the average CEO’s tenure in the Netherlands where he or she remains in his / her position only for a period of 4,5 years. In other countries, like the USA this period is somewhat longer but hardly ever lasts for 16 years.

Like world class athletes, corporate executives fly around the world, are battling jet lags and are continuously dealing with tremendous pressures. They have to balance the demands for short term financial results with long-term commitments to sustainability and corporate social responsibilities. They are always on the look-out for established or new competitors, especially in today’s world of disruption and dissatisfied stakeholders. So, if the competitive environments are comparable what are the differences?

To me the most striking difference between the world class athletes and the world class corporate executives can be found in the support they get. How many corporate executives have organized themselves like athletes do? Ok, there’s the executive secretary for the schedule, the personal assistant for in-depth support and perhaps a personal fitness trainer or an executive coach. But is this support incidental or structural? To have the “Full Monty” support, covering fitness, sleep patterns, nutrition, executive coaching etc. is very rare in my experience.

Some recent examples in the Dutch corporate world have, unfortunately and very sadly, seen some very capable winners collapse under the pressure for continuous top performance. They undoubtedly possessed the talent, they worked hard and were well experienced but their body and / or minds gave up on them. The same happened a couple of years ago to top executives at BMW and Lloyd’s Banking Group.

What’s the key lesson we may learn from their unfortunate experiences?

Perhaps we should recognize that ‘New Generation Leaders’ are in fact top athletes who need to organize their support in a similar way. Not just for the time they are expected to perform at the highest levels but also when they leave their role. When a sportsman retires…they still train and get ‘weaned’ off elite training and performance, whereas to my knowledge, this is totally left to the corporate executive to deal with. Going from a high pressured, fast-paced and low rest environment to having lots of time, no strict structure to the day perhaps is something else to consider. Adjusting the body from a corporate perspective I feel is often overlooked.

An executive coach addresses not just the personal aspects but also the strategy, tactics, knowledge and experience.

Don’t we all know that history always repeats itself? The Ancient Greeks already quoted Mens sana in corpore sano. (A healthy mind in a healthy body).

-Wim Dufourné