Becoming a Clutch Leader

athleteYour basketball team is down by 1 with 5 seconds to go. Are you the player that demands the ball and calmly sinks the game winning shot? Or are you the player that wilts under pressure and fumbles the ball out of bounds?

In sports, the analogy is easy, and athletes spend countless hours working on it. But as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out in their Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” very few leaders develop the skills necessary to star under the most challenging circumstances.

Loehr and Schwartz explain that the demands on leaders like you and me to sustain high performance day in and day out dwarf the challenges faced by any world-class athlete. Think about it – the average professional athlete spends most of his or her time practicing and only a small percentage actually competing. Compare that to your schedule – when is the last time you had time to practice?

Athletes enjoy several months of off-season while we’re lucky if we get in a few weeks of vacation each year. The career of an athlete spans a handful of years, while an average leader will work for 40 to 50 years.

So, doesn’t that mean we should be spending much more time developing ourselves as high performing leaders as opposed to much less?

Loehr and Schwartz maintain a successful approach to sustained high performance should be viewed as a four-level high performance pyramid. I’m going to focus the rest of this blog on the foundation of that pyramid, physical capacity, and cover the remaining levels (emotional, mental and spiritual capacity) in subsequent blogs.

Physical capacity

Extensive research confirms that the capacity to mobilize energy on demand is the foundation of what Loehr and Schwartz call the “ideal performance state,” and a key component of energy management is oscillating between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery). They found that the real enemy of high performance is not stress, which is actually the stimulus for growth, but rather the absence of recovery.

Weightlifting is effective because muscles are stressed to the point where fibers actually start to break down. Given an adequate period of recovery, the muscle not only heals but grows stronger. But continue to stress the muscle without rest and the result will be damage. And failure to stress the muscle at all results in weakness and atrophy (think of an arm in a cast). In both cases, the enemy is not stress, but rather linearity – the failure to rotate between stress and recovery.

Loehr and Schwartz point out the problem for leaders isn’t actually that their lives are increasingly stressful, it’s that they are relentlessly linear.

Now think about your average weekly schedule.  Are you building in periods of recovery amidst the stress? (I didn’t think I needed to ask if the stress was already present)

The foundation for the high performance period starts with physical capacity because the body is our fundamental source of energy, and a strong physical foundation comes from developing good exercise, eating and sleeping rituals. Nothing sexy or earth-shattering, yet consider how you are doing in these areas…

Developing a regular workout acts as a form of recovery from the mental and emotional stress that no doubt is present throughout a typical week. Good eating habits (lightly and often) help maintain a consistent energy level throughout the day, and Loehr and Schwartz cite research suggesting the mind and body need recovery every 90 to 120 minutes, which is a good guideline for an eating schedule. Finally, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and getting an ideal amount of sleep each night are equally important.

If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you simply are not going to be able to hit the equivalent of the game-winning shot when things get intense. This is not to say you can’t do it once or twice, but Loehr and Schwartz explain that you cannot perform to your full potential or without a cost over time to yourself, your family and your organization.

I encourage you to start small and pick one ritual (workout, eating or sleeping) and begin to integrate into your schedule. You WILL notice the difference, and you’ll be on your way to consistently hitting your equivalent of the game winning shot.

If you want to grow yourself into a clutch leader, email me at with the secret password CLUTCH in the subject line and I’ll send you 5 detailed tips for a more solid physical foundation.

Chris Wills About Chris Wills

Father Time, or Chris Wills, is passionate about helping other leaders learn and grow and free up time they didn’t think they had. He is the Founder of Student Paths, an organization that better prepares students for their future in college, career and life readiness. You can reach Chris at:

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