In this summer of ‘Glasgow 2014’ commonwealth games, I was watching athletics on television one recent Sunday afternoon. Between events, the commentators were celebrating great achievements from the past, including Jonathan Edwards’ world record triple jump in 1995. Edwards, who was anchoring the programme, was asked about his experience by one of his colleagues. In his response I noticed the words ‘coming through me’.
My ears pricked up: we use this phrase in Leadership Embodiment to describe centre, a state of ease and ‘flow’, also referred to as ‘being in the zone’. Curious, I watched an online video of Edwards’ jump – he broke his own world record twice that day! In his first round, he jumped 18cm further than his previous distance, effectively securing the world championship gold. Then, in the second round, he added another 13cm to the record. In the footage, you can see a wee smile just before he begins his run – with the job done in terms of the competition, his movement seems more fluid, his landing lighter and softer.
Many of us know this phenomenon in some form or another – those occasions when it seems that everything is falling into place. Whatever we’re doing becomes effortless, with impact beyond our expectations. We notice these moments because they contrast with our usual exertion, toil and sweat.
Recall a time, in your life or work, when you were ‘on fire’ – your timing was sweet and your aspirations were realised. How does this experience differ from whatever is more usual? What allowed it to unfold?
What if we could increase the possibility of this heightened state? To begin, we might become more consciously aware of the quality of our engagement with others and/or our interventions in our system. Whatever our field and expertise, if we attune to how and when remarkable outcomes occur, then we can examine the factors in play. Whether unexpected results are favourable or adverse, the same diligence and curiosity should be applied – most of us major in either analysing our failures, or questioning our successes. If we ask, as athletes do, what we can learn from both, we can begin to boost the factors that make peak experiences more likely.
In the Harvard Business Review in January 2001, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz outlined how they use their experience with elite athletes to support leaders to cultivate ‘the capacity to mobilize energy on demand’ (‘The making of a corporate athlete’). Specifically, they identify linearity as the enemy of high performance, by which they mean ‘the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery’ between periods of application. This ‘easing off’ can create room for the exceptional to arise.
A professional double-bass player once told me how her playing was transformed when she learned to relax her fingers between the notes. What if we could apply this in our leadership conversations, in those moments where we constrict around narrow criteria? If we breathed between sentences, what would change?
In Leadership Embodiment work, we study the energetic differences between our everyday, striving self, and centred, open engagement. As we become familiar with the distinct characteristics of these two states, we see how they shape our impact in the world. We learn to identify how and when we tighten, and practice disengaging for a moment of purposeful recovery, before re-engaging with our challenge with more ease and grace.
Our capacity for flow or centre is innate, since it sometimes happens spontaneously. As leaders, will we rely on random visitations, or will we divine how we might encourage it to come through us when it matters?
To create the conditions for an event to be more likely, we can draw on work by JH Austin, an American neuroscientist, who studied the personal factors that contribute to researchers making great discoveries in medicine (see ‘Management research’ by Easterby-Smith et al). Austin proposed that major breakthroughs arise when four forms of chance coincide:
• chance 1: blind luck – which may play a part, but with long odds against as a sole strategy;
• chance 2: generated by being ‘in motion’ – having a clear purpose and being active, curious, resilient, and persistent in pursuit of it;
• chance 3: stimulated by having a prepared mind – knowing the field, being observant and ready to think outside existing frameworks; and
• chance 4: having other interests – allowing for cross-fertilisation from diverse spheres to spark new connections and seed fresh insights.
As leaders, we can apply this approach to develop capacity for the extraordinary to arise, or come through us. We can be diligent in:
• logging repetitions of centring practices, to become increasingly familiar with the centred state, which increases its availability to us;
• studying our reaction to pressure in different settings, and being forensic in our scrutiny of its origins and how it develops; and
• observing patterns in our habitual ways of efforting, and in our experiences of centre, across all activities and contexts, to understand what makes each more likely to occur.
The deal, perhaps, is to find a blend of self-determining effort – which puts us in a better position to recognise when to exert and when to ease – with allowing the vagaries of a complex adaptive world to shape our performance.
How might you raise the odds of the exceptional coming through you?
My next Leadership Embodiment level 1 programme starts on 29 September in Fife, for more information click here.