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The Race of Your Life

This article highlights the concept of "flow," a mental state of deep focus and immersion experienced during intense engagement with activities, particularly in high-pressure situations like Olympic competitions. Flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is characterized by a harmonious unity of body and mind, where one's skills are fully deployed to meet the challenges at hand, leading to peak performance.
The Race of Your Life Peter Fisk

Table of Contents

Business leaders need to achieve more in today’s fast, dynamic and intensely competitive markets. Peter Fisk explores what it takes to deliver peak performance.

Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete in the midst of competition. As you prepare for the greatest race of your life, you consider the moments ahead, anticipate what might happen, your alternative strategies. And maybe, you just dare to dream.

In reality, you need to be ready for anything. It’s no use overthinking. You are in the best condition of your life, and you have run many races before. In reality, you are simply consumed by the moment, at one with your body, focused on the race.

When you are at your “peak”, your body and mind flow in unison, you know what to do.

Finding your future flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that peak performance comes from inside, and that people have the unique ability to create environments that facilitate the development of a state of mind which he calls “flow”, or what some might call “in the zone”.

Flow is the experience I get when I’m working intensely on a project, the challenge is significant, the team around me are great people, the timeframes are tight, and the ambition is very high.

Once I am into the project, I find I can work at great pace, there is a stream of consciousness, ideas emerge rapidly.

Under the stress and stretch of high octane situations, we can often do our best work.  Csikszentmihalyi says “ the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen”

It is a feeling of immersion, focus and concentration, removed from the repetition and distractions of everyday, you feel like you have more purpose, with heightened awareness of the situation and possibilities. Complexity seems less intimidating, and uncertainty less daunting. You are energised, you are empowered, you can achieve so much more.

Flow is achieved through an intensity of concentration and effort as you apply yourself to the task. You are energised by possibility, and released from the fear of failure. You rise above yourself, above the distractions of today. The experience of this flow is as good as the outcomes.

5 ways for business leaders to find their “flow” state every day are:

  • Select tasks that are stimulating and engaging, they challenge you to the point of excitement. They are problems you would love to solve.
  • Assemble a great team, people you love and trust, who you know that together you can do great things (or you, on occasions, you can also do this alone).
  • Define audacious goals, that go beyond the accepted norms, 10x not 10% targets, and also a sense of what the rewards could be, personal or organisational.
  • Focus your mind, a stream of consciousness towards the goal, eliminating the daily trivia, the distractions of the normal workspace
  • Immerse yourself in the moment, active not passive, thinking ideas, doing tasks, making progress, building momentum, going for the goal.

The “flow” state of mind becomes the everyday state of business leaders. It becomes normal. Every day, working towards the future, whilst also delivering today. Your mind working overtime, connecting ideas, searching for progress, focused on the actions which will create a better tomorrow. Indeed, you can only ever do things today, even it is focused on a better future.

Playing to your strengths

We have grown used to exploring the “strengths and weaknesses” of human character, or in this case of leadership behaviour. The problem is that this kind of diagnostic encourages us to focus on our weaknesses, to make them better, to be “good enough” at everything.

An alternative is focus on your strengths and how to make them better.

Yet few business leaders say they get to use their strengths in most of their work. The challenge in any team is to bring a diverse group of people together, where their combined strengths are irresistible. This means that as long as all the important attributes are covered, then the team will be strong in all areas, and amplify its impact far beyond that of any individual.

Psychologist Martin Seligman studied cultures around the world to understand what they regarded as “strengths” in leaders. The research explored major religions and philosophical traditions and found that the same six virtues were shared in almost all cultures.

Gallup’s StrengthFinder assessment model is one of the most useful tool for exploring the practical component of these virtues as 24 character strengths:

  • Virtue of Wisdom: the more curious and creative we become, the more we gain perspective, knowledge and wisdom. Component strengths are creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and perspective.
  • Virtue of Couragethe braver and more persistent we become, the more confident we feel, and more courageous we act. Component strengths are bravery, perseverance, honesty and vitality.
  • Virtue of Humanity: the more we approach people with respect, appreciation, and interest, the more engaged they become. Component strengths are love, kindness and social intelligence.
  • Virtue of Justice: the more responsible we are, embracing fairness and justice, the more stable community we can build for mutual benefit. Component strengths are teamwork, fairness and leadership.
  • Virtue of Temperance: being forgiving, humble, prudent, and in control of our behaviours, helps us to avoid being arrogant, selfish, and unbalanced. Component strengths are forgiveness, humility, prudence and self-control.
  • Virtue of Transcendence: never losing hope in humanity’s potential, appreciating nature and people, enables us to connect with a higher purpose. Component strengths are appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality.

Additional studies have shown that women typically score higher in interpersonal strengths, such as love and kindness, honesty and gratitude. Men tend to score higher on cognitive strengths, creativity and curiosity, hope and humour, but also highly on honesty. Whilst these differences are interesting, and largely conform to stereotypes suggesting that they might be shaped by culture, there are also many shared strengths.

Playing to your strengths not only enables you to perform better, and contribute more to a team, it can also result in feeling more engaged and confident, and enable you to progress faster.

The leader’s plastic brain

We used to assume that we each have our established ways of thinking and behaving, and as we get older the capability of our brain to learn and adapt declines.  Yet our brain can grow new neurons at any age. Each neuron can transmit up to 1,000 nerve signals a second and make as many as 10,000 connections with other neurons. Our thoughts come from the chemical signals that pass across the synaptic gaps between neurons: the more connections we make, the more powerful and adaptive our brain can be.

Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, practising medical doctor, and executive coach, with a background in psychiatry. I first met her on stage in Bratislava, where we both were delivering our “Big Idea” for Europe. Her first book, “Neuroscience for Leadership was more of an academic text, while her new book is The Source is more populist, and claims most of the things we want from life – health, happiness, wealth, love – are governed by our ability to think, feel and act. In other words, by our brain.

Keeping the brain fit through exercise, continual learning and rich experiences, enhances your mental agility. In the past leaders relied more upon experience and procedure, in today’s world we need leaders who can make sense of new patterns, imagine new possibilities, thrive on diversity of thought and complexity of action. Leaders need to have a mind that is always ahead, seeing and anticipating what next.

“Think of the brain as the hardware of a computer,” says Swart. “Your mind is the software. You’re the coder who upgrades the software to transform the data (your thoughts). You also control the power supply that fuels the computer — the food and drink you consume, when and how to exercise and meditate, who to interact with… You have the power to maintain or destroy your neural connections.”

Mindful activities such as yoga or meditation reduce levels of cortisol and increase the fold of the outer cortex of the brain, allowing the pre-frontal cortex to better regulate our emotional responses. Swart says just 12 minutes a day, most days of the week, will make a noticeable difference. New experiences such as travel, learning a skill, such as a foreign language, and meeting new people can stimulate the growth of new neurons.

There are some obvious ways to improve your brain function, such as drink more water, get more exercise, and don’t read from electronic screens in the last hour before bed. Sleeping less than seven to eight hours a night isn’t sustainable for most people, because that’s how long it takes to clear out toxins. Sleeping on your left side helps the brain to flush out toxins more efficiently, and downing a spoonful of coconut oil before a big meeting boosts brain power for about 20 minutes.

The journey ahead will have high and lows. Endurance demands physical fitness and emotional agility, but also taking moments to pause, and celebrate progress.

James Dyson took 15 years and 5127 attempts to perfect his bagless vacuum. When he succeeded, he created a revolution, but it required incredible persistence to get there. Not only is the future difficult to create, but everything keeps changing on the journey towards it.

The mental toughness, the grit to persist, is not just about keeping going, but the resilience to overcome challenges and obstacles. Sometimes, just the sheer volume of information – emails, analysis, reports, ideas, articles, books, meetings – will become overbearing. As a leader it’s easy to feel overloaded.

It’s also easy to feel you need to know everything, which you don’t, although you do need to prioritise what matters most. The biggest challenge for any visionary leader is not how to make ideas happen, but how to overcome all the people who say that they won’t. Critics and pessimists can be frustrating, and a motivational drain.

There will also be moments of great success, people might even call you a hero. It will feel good, even to the humblest, and you will inevitably remind everyone that it was a team effort. Yet the euphoria can quickly disappear, with the next challenge.

Leaders need endurance, resilience, and gratitude, to cope with relentless change; to be able to change your own mind, to stay on the rollercoaster of progress, to keep teams engaged, and to thrive at both work and in your life.

The endurance of leaders

Endurance is as much about mind as muscle power.

Like an athlete – runner, cyclist, rower – there are many physiological elements at play, from core body temperature to oxygen intake, plus psychological factors, such as perceived effort and pain tolerance. Each of these factors is significant in the level of athletic performance humans which any person is capable of, especially when testing the perceived limits of performance, such as setting new world records.

Almost every athlete will attest to faster recovery if they jump into an ice bath after a competition. Yet studies show that this practice doesn’t actually decrease inflammation levels, the thing the baths are intended to reduce. However, most physiologists will still say that if there’s a method that helps you recover, even if it’s purely psychological, then it is useful because sometimes belief is just as influential as science.

In “Endure” Alex Hutchinson starts by retelling the race to break 4 minutes for one mile. For years, men across the globe had raced to within a second or two of the barrier, but never quite breaking the iconic time. When Britain’s Roger Bannister finally ran 3.59.4 in 1954, Australian John Landy who had been trying to run the time for years, went on to improve  Banister’s time by another second, only weeks later.

A number of important factors can help people, including business leaders, to endure more:

  • We always have a little more to give. Watch how athletes pace themselves so that they always have one final effort at the end of a long distance event. And somehow an Olympic champion, despite a punishing race, can always rise to celebrate victory
  • We can endure more than we think. Athletes have a higher than normal pain tolerance enabling them to push harder. They learn to cope with this by training at a “threshold” pace, learning to sustain oxygen debt, despite its searing pain.
  • Fitness enables us to perform better. Athletic performance greatly relies on oxygen intake, which is enhanced through heightened fitness. Business leaders also need oxygen, and the physical fitness to sustain leadership performance.
  • Fatigue reduces our performance. Having a tired brain can affect how much we can endure physically. A tired brain is one that doesn’t have a break, isn’t refueled, doesn’t have variety, doesn’t keep learning, doesn’t get enough sleep.
  • Stress stops us performing. Of the many factors, stress can be the killer. However stress comes in two forms – stress from outside, eg timescales, and stress we put on ourselves. External stress can stimulate us, internal stress we can control.

Hutchinson’s research led him to South Africa to work with Tim Noakes, the controversial sports scientist who first proposed the “central governor theory,” which argues that the brain limits performance well before the body has reached its maximum output. He also explores the research of another pioneering scientist, Samuele Marcora, who has developed a series of brain-training exercises to push that governor.

He also recalls talking to Eliud Kipchoge just before he ran the world’s first sub-2 hour marathon, when the Kenyan said he hadn’t really changed anything in his training. What then, he asked, would make the difference? “My mind will be different” replied the runner.  People he says, have a curiously elastic limit to what they can achieve, driven mainly be their mental toughness.

The resilience of leaders

Resilience is our ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s what allows us to recover quickly from change or setbacks, trauma or failure, whether at work or in life. It is the ability to maintain a sense if purpose, a positive attitude, a belief in better, throughout times of challenge. Resilience sustains progress, whilst others might give up.

Angela Duckworth calls it grit. “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals” she says. She compares it not to a marathon, but to a series of sprints combined with a boxing match. In business, you are not just running but also getting hit along the way. As you seek to deliver on your strategy, to make new ideas happen, to transform the business, it’s not just about coping with the time and effort. It’s also about overcoming many challenges.

Grit keeps you moving forward through the sting of rejection, pain of failure, and struggle with adversity. “When things knock you down, you may want to stay down and give up, but grit won’t let you quit” says Duckworth.

Most entrepreneurs have tremendous resilience, because they’ve had to fight for the business through some of the most difficult times. The search for seed funding when every VC dismissed them with a laugh or smile, the long days in a bedroom or garage trying to make the first prototype or win the first contract, the growing pains of scale-up as they have to adapt to survive and thrive. Letting go of control as investors take over, making you wealthy but taking away your baby. Most entrepreneurs know about grit.

But then so do corporate leaders. If not from starting up, then from surviving the challenges of internal politics, of learning how to engage and influence people in a positive way, of progressing as a star individual whilst keeping colleagues and teams on side. Of balancing personal ambition with collective progress. Resilience demands that we:

  • Have ambition: Knowing what you truly want, and are prepared to work hard and persevere in order to achieve it. Vision isn’t just a milestone, it becomes a pursuit. Whilst not everybody will know  your ambition, you will, and it will keep you striving.
  • Have purpose: This is why you want to achieve more, it’s about what will be better when you achieve your ambition, not just for you, but your business, your family, your world. Purpose is how you contribute, what you fight for, why you get up in the morning.
  • Have passion: You need to love it, to be great at it. Otherwise it’s not worth the sacrifices, the long hours, and the pain. Aligning your purpose and ambition allows you to find love, for your work, your team, your business, and the world you seek to impact.
  • Have persistence: You will sometimes fail. Few things change without challenges. Failure doesn’t define you, it refines you. If you didn’t fail, you wouldn’t learn. There is always another way. Stay confident and stay strong.

Nelson Mandela was a great example of resilience. He was sent to prison as a young firebrand who believed in taking up violent resistance when the justice system failed him in apartheid South Africa. 27 years later, he walked out of Robben Island prison advocating peace and reconciliation. During his long confinement, Mandela mastered what he later called self-leadership. He took great inspiration in the poem “Invictus,” written by William Ernest Henley, which ends with the lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

© Peter Fisk 2024

Contributed by:

Peter Fisk
Inspiring Leadership + Smarter Innovation + Accelerating Growth Bestselling author, keynote speaker, expert advisor to business leaders