Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Energetic cheques

In the movie ‘Top Gun’, Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, is berated by his superior with the words:

‘your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash’

Whilst the language is somewhat more pointed than I generally use (these days, at least), this succinctly conveys a perennial difficulty in the way many of us navigate the world. What I can imagine immediately, greatly outstrips what I can quickly achieve.

Put simply, I can look at a mountain in Kintail, and decide to climb it, envisaging the moment at the top. The reality of reaching the summit involves several hours of demanding effort, and may even be outside my current fitness. This doesn’t stop the fantasy!

That my mind might make plans that I’m not (yet) energetically equipped to fulfil first became evident through Leadership Embodiment practices. In an activity that explores the impact of realising our aspirations, it became clear that, while I might dream of my book being an international bestseller, I would be freaked out by the accompanying visibility. Energetically, I’m only ready for modest success.

In our plugged-in world, we’re familiar with the notion of ‘bandwidth’. Broadly, this refers to the maximum capacity for throughput in a digital communication path. We’ve also experienced the delays or distortions that occur when available bandwidth isn’t sufficient for a task. A movie ‘hangs’, a download takes forever. We become irritated or frustrated.

Now consider the possibility that, as a leader, you have an energetic bandwidth. What happens when your workload exceeds your current capacity for throughput? How does the quality of your presence change? What is the impact on those around you?

In the flow of energy that comprises a life, some of our activities are energising, replenishing or increasing our capacity. Others expend energy, depleting our reserves. When outflow exceeds inflow over time, we become ‘overdrawn’. This shows up physically in forms such as stress, agitation, hyper-activity, or exhaustion. We become less efficient, less effective. Our wellbeing declines. Sometimes an illness or injury develops. Yet, when filling my diary, I’m sure I’m not alone in failing to consider whether I have the energetic resources for the time-commitments I’m making.

Paradoxically, pressure on our energetic bandwidth is often most acute at moments of great achievement. As an executive coach, I’ve supported a number of leaders to navigate a recruitment process for their ‘dream job’. The outcome is outside my client’s control, so we work through the impact of being unsuccessful, or ‘in limbo’ while a decision is made.

I also encourage my client to prepare for the effects of success. Experience tells me that this is the more challenging outcome. My clients substantiate this, finding that actually getting the job is unsettling and disorienting, even with the groundwork we’ve done. Competent, confident, and endorsed as up to the role, the cheques my client wrote in thoughts and words are now being cashed energetically. They have to deliver, whilst being unproven. There are new relationships to establish, or existing ones to re-set. Demands on their time and energy escalate immediately – everyone ‘wants a piece’ of the new boss. Energetic cheques begin to bounce.

The living reality of success is materially different to the dream. This comes as a shock. The imagined future was founded on a partial picture, biased by our preferences. Reality is an incoming flood of new information, testing our processing capacity, stretching our cognitive bandwidth. Less obviously, our somatic system is on alert for potential dangers in an unfamiliar setting. Matter adjusts more slowly to new circumstances than mind

How we respond to this intensity is important. Imposing mind over matter, and ‘pushing’ through it, puts further pressure on a human system already at capacity. In the short term, this may be tolerable, but it is unsustainable. Eventually, the body begins to creak around the edges. How might we conduct ourselves more skilfully at an energetic level?

In the longer term, through experience, we can (and do) increase our capacity for handling greater intensity. We can accelerate this growth through practices such as martial arts, meditation, yoga, or Leadership Embodiment. It takes time and diligence.

More immediately, we can learn to identify the early signs that we’re over-extended, and take steps to recover some balance between the energetic demands on us, and our available bandwidth. For instance, we can mitigate the flow of calls on our energy by being discerning about how, whether, and when we respond to them. We can try to be clear-sighted about the expectations we’re placing on ourselves, and avoid writing further dodgy cheques.

We can also pay good attention to taking care of self, by resting, replenishing our reserves, and having fun. We might build an inventory of the activities that energise us, and those that deplete us. This clarity will support us in a current predicament, and also enable us to be more thoughtful in prospect: in the initial excitement of the next new project or ambition, we can pause, and consider potential energetic costs. With awareness, we can endeavour to make sufficient energetic deposits to cover the rate of withdrawal.

When you next squeeze an appointment into your diary, perhaps even cancelling your gym session or book club, you might ask yourself: can I cash this energetic cheque?

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