Behavior Choices Decision Making Growth Leadership Performance

You’re an Athlete. Lead like it.

Every choice you make will bring you closer to your goals or not. Every choice influences whether you’re going up or down.

All top athletes will tell you that rest is equally important as the time spent on training, practice, and races. You need to invest time to recover from your efforts to get better and let your body, mind, and soul process what they have learned.

I’ve been a leader and executive for many years, responsible for thousands of people and large amounts of revenue and profits. I’ve been traveling and commuting often, sometimes with 100+ flights yearly. I’ve learned a thing or two about energy depletion and preservation. Late evenings with lots of food and an alcoholic beverage or two, time zone jet lags, and early and late meetings. There was constant pressure to perform better, especially when the wind was in your face.

People expect you to be sharp, on your game, and always leading them. They expect you to be available, communicative, and ready to provide direction when needed. Your people are observing you at all times. They follow every move. Most of them are cheering for you; some are waiting for you to fail. They’re either after your job or don’t like you. This is not abnormal. It’s the cost of doing business.

You can’t be liked by everyone.

Be aware. Awareness and attention are what it all boils down to. You have a high-profile job, and people are watching. They want to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. They want to be inspired by you. They want you to lead the way. When you’re good at what you do, they realize their lives may improve because of your leadership.

So, there’s a lot at stake, and you can’t let your guard down.

Yes, as a senior leader, there are many perks. Your compensation is excellent; you get to travel to new places, stay in good hotels, and have access to development opportunities. If you’re really good, the company will invest in you. They want you to stay for as long as possible. They know that hiring your replacement is more expensive than keeping you. Sometimes up to five times less expensive. Because when you leave, you’re never sure about the performance of your successor.

You also owe the company much in return, not just good results.

You owe the company to be responsible, fit, and consistent in your performance. That requires you to rest regularly, get your hours of sleep, eat and drink responsibly and healthily, and take care of your health and well-being. Regular sports are good because they keep you fit and are great for your body and mind.

Early on in my career, I did not have this awareness.

I traveled a lot, ate and drank, not necessarily wisely, and didn’t play sports, and as a consequence, I became bigger and bigger. I remember one morning in Bruges when I joined two of my colleagues, Bob and Charlie, for a run, and I couldn’t keep up — not with them, but also not with my breath. 

We were running in the usual Belgian rain at 6 a.m. over wet and slippery cobblestones in the heart of Bruges. The city was still asleep. It was March and still dark at 6 a.m. I was running with Bob and Charlie and had to let them go. My heart was pounding, my body was sweating and aching, and my head was foggy because of the wine from the night before.

That morning, while taking a hot shower I did not deserve, I decided that enough was enough. 

I decided not to let this go on and would take steps to get healthy, eat better, and sport more. Back in the office, my HR colleagues and I initiated a running program sponsored by Nike called ‘Start to Run.’ It’s a global program that helps people run a 5k within 12 weeks. You start by exchanging short runs with longer walks and gradually replace the walks with longer runs. Until you can run a 5k without stopping. We ran with 12 to 15 people and supported each other.

In no time, I lost 20 kilos by running consistently and moderating my meal portions. That was it — no crazy diets. I still allowed myself to indulge now and then, just not that often. My energy levels went up, my mind became sharper, and I started to feel better.

I became a responsible leader who realized that his health and well-being were important not just for himself but also for the people he lived and worked with. I never looked back. Four years later, I ran a marathon. I’m still around the same weight today, and I work out and run almost daily. I still like to moderate my portions, although that can be challenging. I like good food.

Once again, like with psychological safety, you have a choice. 

You always have a choice!

  • You can choose to get up or stay in bed;
  • You can choose to make your bed or not;
  • You can choose to look at your phone or exercise and meditate;
  • You can choose to take the stairs or take the elevator to your office;
  • You can choose to have that conversation you know you need to have or to let it go;
  • You can choose to skip lunch and keep working or take a break, walk, and eat a light meal.
  • You can choose to switch off for 30 minutes or remain focused on your phone.
  • You can choose to switch off your notifications.
  • You can choose (and try) to remain calm or to lash out at a colleague.
  • You can choose to call a friend or family member on your way home, read a book, or get sucked into social media.
  • You can choose to read a book or watch TV when you’re home.
  • You can choose to limit your alcohol consumption or drink one more for coziness’s sake.
  • You can go to bed early or stay up for that late TV show.
  • You can choose to read your phone or read a book.
  • You can sleep for six to eight hours or suffer from sleep deprivation.
You always have a choice.

And every choice you make will bring you closer to your goals or not. Every choice influences whether you’re going up or down. Whether you’re perceived as a good or a bad leader or family member. 

Each choice you make adds or subtracts value to your personal brand and your company’s market value.

These choices are similar to the choices and sacrifices many top athletes and leaders have made. When other people decided to indulge, they would continue to work on their growth. Determination, consistency, hard work, and suffering are all part of the playbook of these top performers.

When you accept that you are an athlete leader, you accept that you will need to rest to perform at a continuously high level for a long time. You can’t live unhealthily, skip rest for years, and think you won’t burn yourself out.

Choose wisely!

Your turn: Are you an athlete, and are you inspiring your colleagues to be one?

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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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