11 mins

If you’re like the CEOs I coach, you’ve probably read books on leadership, taken workshops on leadership, or maybe even gone to leadership retreats. But despite all of this, you still feel like you’re missing something.

I believe this is because you’re at a point in your leadership journey where you’re being challenged to take yourself somewhere new. Somewhere you don’t know how to get to, yet. Maybe you’re not even aware that this is what’s happening.

But, here’s the thing.

While you’re looking to go somewhere new, you’re probably thinking that you'll get there by using the same approach you’ve used in the past. For example, if reading leadership books, and attending leadership workshops and retreats has worked for you in the past, that’s what you'll probably look to do this time as well.

I don’t blame you for thinking this; it’s how most people think, especially high-performers. After all, if it’s worked before, why shouldn’t it work again?

In this article, I wish to share three things with you.

  1. Why the path to developing your leadership skills may not be what you expect.
  2. What one of the most neglected yet important requirements to leadership development is.
  3. What you can do to take the first step in fulfilling this often neglected yet important requirement for leadership development.

The unexpected path to development

Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's trainer of 15 years, said in a GQ interview that when he began working with Michael for the first time, he noticed that Michael was very susceptible to groin pulls and ankle injuries. So he found it to be critically important that Michael addressed these injuries first before worrying about becoming quicker, stronger, and faster. 

Most high-performing athletes are used to tolerating pain and persevering without even thinking twice. So from Michael’s perspective, this probably came as a surprise. It would have been far more natural for him to assume that he wasn’t doing enough to improve his performance.

The same is often true of the CEOs I coach. In fact, I was the same when I became a team lead for the first time. I would often be focused solely on thinking of what more I could do. So I tried to prepare more for meetings. I tried to gather more articles for the team members to read. I tried to find more ways to protect and care for my team members. Never did it occur to me that I had to address my injuries first. In fact, if you had asked me to take care of my injuries first, I would have said ‘What injuries?’

The often-neglected requirement for development

To the CEOs who approach me for coaching, I sometimes ask them the following question: ‘What would you do to develop your muscles?’ Most answer by saying they’ll go to the gym to lift heavier and heavier weights or do more and more reps. Sounds logical enough. Except, muscles don’t actually develop when you exercise. What exercising does is create tension in your muscle tissues – tensions severe enough to create micro-injuries to the muscles. Muscles only develop when these injured muscle tissues recover.

When you first start exercising you’ll notice these micro-injuries because you’ll feel sore. But if you exercise consistently you’ll soon start to feel less and less sore until you can easily brush it off as ‘nothing’. There is no clear understanding of why the soreness disappears, but what remains true is that just because you no longer feel sore, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting injured each time you exercise. The same thing happens in leadership. Leaders are tasked with engaging in activities that create tension in their minds. Just think of how much time you spend each day thinking of complex thoughts, or ambiguous dilemmas and conundrums, trying to make a clear decision on what to do next and how. Especially with the increase in work-from-home initiatives, the likelihood of leaders thinking in isolation and creating further tension in their minds has increased significantly.

Not only that, but as a leader, much of your work naturally involves making things happen with, through, and in opposition to people in or around your organization. So inevitably, you’ll experience tension in these relationships. Be it with your team members, customers, your bosses – maybe even your spouse or children at home. Perhaps you’re experiencing such tension at this very moment.

Whether it’s tension in your mind or in your relationships, at first, you’ll feel the significant aftermath of these tensions because you’ll feel the psychological or relationship-related pain. But eventually, you may feel the pain less and less until you start brushing it off as ‘nothing’. Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, you burn out and get bitter, become jaded and resentful, maybe even apathetic. This is precisely what happened to me before I left the company where I had become a team lead for the first time.

The good news is that just as our muscles develop when they recover from micro-injuries, so do our minds and relationships. In other words, these micro-injuries are necessary for developing our leadership skills.

The bad news is that every single leader I’ve coached had largely neglected to pay attention to recovering from micro-injuries. So by the time they approached me, the micro-injuries had oftentimes turned into chronic injuries they had accepted as part of life, lingering in the background and constantly hampering their leadership performance.

So what are we to do?

First steps

If you’ve been neglecting the importance of recovery in your leadership development, the following are ways you can recover the mental and ‘relationship’ muscles used in leadership.

Taking time off from tension-inducing activities

One of the things athletes do to recover their physical muscles is to take time off from tension-inducing activities by sleeping, for example. While sleep can undoubtedly be helpful to leaders, when it comes to recovering our mental muscles, it can also help to engage in physical activities. This is because even though physical activities are tension-inducing to your body, it often takes your mind off of tension-inducing thoughts. So any leisurely or playful activities such as taking a stroll, hiking, being with nature, dancing, etc. that are not tension-inducing to your mind can help. 

When it comes to recovering your ‘relationship muscles’, you can take time off tension-inducing activities with those people. You can play with them. You can engage in leisure activities with them.

As you may have guessed, this is where vacation fits in as well. But the question is, are you tending to tension-inducing calls or emails during vacation? If so, that’s not taking time off. Yoga and meditation fit here as well. But are you creating tension in your mind by telling yourself that you’ve skipped yoga or meditation? Or that you’re doing it wrong? Or that it’s not working? These thoughts can also disrupt your time off from tension-inducing activities.

Taking time off from tension-inducing activities can be easier said than done. After all, creating tension in our minds is what we, as knowledge workers, have been trained to do for years. So it can be very difficult for us to genuinely take time off from tension-inducing activities. At the same time, even if you're able to do it a few times, you’ll be providing a solid foundation upon which the other techniques for recovery can be used.

Receiving and giving emotional support

Another thing athletes do to recover their physical muscles is to receive hormonal support from the natural secretion of insulin and testosterone, for example. The equivalent for our mental muscles is to receive emotional support from others.

Whenever you feel unsupported by your boss, CEO, team members, etc., instead of trying to tough it out by yourself, notice and admit to yourself that you don’t feel supported. It’s okay to admit to yourself that you feel unappreciated, disrespected, and/or unacknowledged. Then clearly identify some things the other person could have done or said to make you feel supported. Finally, if you feel comfortable speaking about this directly with that person, do so. If not, find someone other than this person who is willing to support you in that exact way.

Finding support inside an organization can sometimes be difficult. So if you cannot find it internally, I encourage you to seek it outside. I’m creating exactly such a cross-organizational support system, so if you’re interested, click here to learn more.

When you receive regular support, you’ll be surprised at how much more energized, calm, and confident you feel. Once this happens, you can confront and navigate difficult conversations and decisions with much greater poise. 

When it comes to your relationships, note that you also have to give and receive emotional support to and from each other. If you want that particular relationship muscle to develop, there has to be a virtuous cycle of mutual emotional support. So you also need to find out what makes other people feel supported and exercise that. Don’t assume what you think as ‘support’ will necessarily work for others.

Digesting and sharing key insights

Perhaps one of the most well-known things athletes do to recover their physical muscles is to proactively digest key nutrients. The equivalent for our mental muscles is to digest key insights.

Such insights include becoming aware of what energizes you and others in your relationships, as well as what unfulfilled emotional needs make you and others feel vulnerable. Additionally, you should know how you could unintentionally hurt or hamper the performance of those around you, what subconscious judgments or limiting beliefs are dragging down your own leadership performance, and why others feel like they have no choice, but to behave in ways you do not approve of or cannot understand.

Please notice I said ‘digest’ not ‘acquire’. You can acquire all the insights you want, but what matters to your development are the ones that are digested. When insights are digested, it will give you an unexpected sense of realization of empathy both with yourself and others. It will also give you newfound clarity of what is going on in your mind and in your relationships. With such a clear view, you’ll be able to make wiser decisions.

It’s worth noting that you can only digest so much at a time. If you try to force it you’ll find your mind resisting by judging or criticizing yourself or others, so don’t get too greedy.

Start by momentarily suspending your judgment of perspectives or opinions different from your own. Simply take note of them and tell yourself that there may be a time in the future when you’ll discover something new about the different perspective or opinion that you cannot understand or appreciate now. Meanwhile, entertain stories of those who went through a process where they came to understand and appreciate a differing perspective or opinion. I launched a podcast for this very purpose, so I encourage you to check it out.

When it comes to developing your relationship muscles, you also have to share key insights with each other. That way, not just you, but also the other person in your relationship is digesting the key insights with you. Otherwise, you can feel as if you’re doing all the work and the other person is taking you for granted.

Releasing tension

Athletes also recover their physical muscles by stretching or receiving massage therapy. These activities help them release held tension. The equivalent for our mental muscles is letting go of a thought that is weighing down on us, writing journals, or working with a coach or a psychotherapist. 

One of the easiest ways to identify tension being held is to look back at your week and find instances when you behaved or thought in one or more of the following five ways.

Once you notice there is tension being held in your mind, the simplest thing you can do to get started in releasing it is by noticing any uncomfortable emotions you’re feeling. Even if the emotion is tiny, do not brush it off. Instead, notice it and identify what it is by name. You can do this at any time of the day; you can even do it right now. 

This can be difficult if you don’t have the words to describe your emotions – especially if you’re used to denying yourself from feeling emotions. To make this a little bit easier use this list of emotions. Remember, the key is to identify all present emotions, even if there’s merely a slight hint of it.

Once you identify the emotions, ask yourself what thoughts are giving rise to each of them. Then identify which of your unfulfilled needs would have to be fulfilled before that thought will change. The same document I mentioned above has a list of needs you can use for this purpose; identifying the unfulfilled needs will take you one step closer to locating your tension.

As you may have guessed, locating tension is one thing, but releasing it is quite another. To dive into how we can release our tension would require several more articles, but my hope is that simply knowing its location may be able to give you enough sense of hope and curiosity to guide you in your journey toward releasing it.

Final thoughts

Just like our physical muscles, we need to make sure we exercise and develop our mental and relationship muscles if we wish to grow and mature as leaders. By exercising these muscles and prioritizing the importance of recovery, you can develop your engineering leadership significantly. Just remember:

  • Take time off from tension-inducing activities
  • Give and receive emotional support
  • Digest and share key insights
  • Release tension

This will take time and effort. But given that you’re already a high-performing individual, I’m confident that you’ll be willing to take on this responsibility for your development and thrive as a result.