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How Leaders Can Perform at Their Best

By Dennis McNulty, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Peak Performance Leadership

Often times one of the most challenging roles a leader has is to manage performance within a team, or with a team member.  Although helping others with their performance is part of being a leader, how often do we as leaders take the time to step back and really ask ourselves how we are performing? 

Being a leader within an organization has constant demands and ever changing expectations, and if we aren’t managing and performing at our best, it can affect all those around us.  Constant demands can turn into higher levels of stress, which in turn can impact our performance, and even our overall health.  The Yerkes-Dodson model of peak performance below demonstrates the relationship between stress and optimal performance:

How Leaders Perform Best vs. Stress Level

This Peak Performance curve shows that we do need a certain amount of stress to be able to perform at our best, however, when we are in a continual and chronic state of high-stress, our brains’ capability will diminish. When our brain is on overload, our ability to process information, make decisions and effectively relate to others quickly declines. And our capability will continue to decline until we can reduce the level of stress we’re in, and then find ways to re-set and recharge for ourselves. (For a deeper look into the impact of overload see the book The Overload Syndrome by Dr. Richard Swenson.)

As a leader there will be many times we find ourselves in an overload state, and our awareness and ability to adjust our behavior is a key skill to maintaining our effectiveness. 

Below I’ve outlined 5-steps to help you think about what it means to be at your best as leader, and what changes you think you would like to make for yourself.  Start by finding at least hour or so for yourself in a quiet place, to reflect and write down your thoughts as you think through the questions in these steps.


1. When you’re at your best:  You’ve probably had times when you felt you were at your best, when you were in your ”zone”, and you are working fully in the present.  Self-awareness is a key leadership skill, and by improving your awareness it will help you to know when to make adjustments to be at your best. 

To improve your leadership awareness, start with asking yourself “How am I when I’m at my best?”  Reflect and remember a time when you were in your “zone”.  What were you doing? What was the environment like? What was the experience like? How did it feel for you?  Capture your thoughts as you remember some of your experiences where you felt like you were at your best.

As you reflected on your experiences, what were the common themes that stand out for you? What would you say are your “at your best” characteristics? For example, is it when you are calm, confident, positive, present, clear? Capture what you feel are the top 3 to 5 “at your best” characteristics for you. Being aware of what you’re like when you are at your best will help to be aware of when you’re out of your zone, and how you can adjust to further develop the habits and practices needed to perform at your best as a leader. (Exercise adapted from Scott Eblin’s book Overworked and Overwhelmed).


2. Where are you today:  As you reflected on when you were at your best, how does that compare to where you are today? Are working in your zone? Do you feel you need new challenges, or are you feeling you’re on overload?  What is your work environment like right now? Do you think the demands realistic, or do they feel like they are continuing to pile-up? I think most of us know that the consequence of constant and chronic overload not only affects your performance as a leader; it can have a major impact on your overall health and well-being.  

Being at your best requires the awareness to know what that looks like for you in your life and work; where you are now, and to know when you need to make real adjustments to show up at your best.

3. What changes do you want to make:  Making the changes to be at your best is one of the most important investments you can make for yourself, and for those you lead. As you reflected about where you are today, what jumps out to you as the real changes you need to make in your life?  For example, do you need to make improvements in your health and fitness, are there relationships that you would like to improve, are their boundaries you think you need to re-set?  

As you think about these questions, capture the key priority areas you want to work on for yourself. Then, with your key areas identified, narrow them down to what you think are the top 2 to 3 areas you want to work on in the near-term to make real improvements and be at your best for yourself, and for those around you.


4. Building new habits and behaviors:  Now that you’ve thought about and captured some of the priority changes you’d like to make for yourself, where do you start? Behavior change happens with focus, discipline and incremental steps.  Set realistic goals for yourself in each of your top 2 to 3 priority areas, trying not to take on everything at once.  You’re defining a plan for yourself based on the top goals you identified. So for each of your goals, define the specific actions you can take over the next 30 to 45 days to incrementally make improvements.  Make a clear commitment to yourself to invest the time it takes to make realistic changes in your life.

New habits and behaviors take time to integrate, so give yourself the realistic space it takes to make the changes you would like to make.  At the end of each week, reflect on your plan and how you’ve progressed towards your goals, what actions you took, and how it feels for you now. There will be times when you will make meaningful progress, and there will be times when you get off track, and that’s part of life.  No matter what progress you’ve made, stay focused on the goals you have in front of you and keep your momentum going forward. (For an in-depth discussion on changing habits and behaviors see the book The Leading Brain – Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann).


5. Your “best you” translates into your “best leadership”:  When you’re at your best you have the energy, the focus and the awareness needed to be present and lead those around you.  Being intentional about how you spend your time and where you invest for yourself translates into being at your best as a leader in your work, and in your life.  

When you are present and aware, it will allow you to give the care and guidance others need to perform at their best.  Staying in your “zone” is a daily challenge, and it takes constant adjusting with the demands in your life.  In Scott Eblin’s book, he talks about the common practice that busy and successful leaders have – that is “making the commitment to intentionally manage their time so they have a chance of showing up at their best in all they do”. 

Commit to Invest in Yourself Every Day

Being intentional means making the commitment to invest in yourself each day so you can show up at your best in all areas of your life. Your commitment and investment for yourself will help you to perform at your best, be a healthier you, and be able to give fully to those around you.

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