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Corporate Athlete

How to create the Ideal Performance Culture (Part 1)


In 2001 The Harvard Business Review published an article by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz titled, The Making of a Corporate Athlete and it started a revolution, of sorts. It centred on the elusive search for sustained high performance in the face of ever-increasing workplace pressures. Up to that point management theorists had suggested exposure to significant ‘material’ rewards, the ‘right’ culture and management by objectives delivered sustained high performance. This ‘neck up’ performance thinking has been reinforced over the last 30 years by Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), Carole Dweck’s Growth Mindset (2006), Angela Duckworth’s Grit (2016) and even Simon Sinek’s Start with Why (2009). All these texts embody a ‘Mind over Matter’ approach to enhanced workplace performance where the body is simply a vehicle which transports our brains to places of work activity. But is it as simple as that, do our bodies play such an irrelevant role?

To date we know more about the universe than we do about what’s going on between our ears, and whilst the body behaves in accordance with scientific law our minds simply don’t. Our brains are super complex machines and in comparison, our bodies are relatively simple phenomena. We use our brains much more than we use our bodies in work, or so we think (pardon the pun), so it’s no wonder then when it comes to workplace performance and recruitment, cognitive skills are a primary focus; but are we missing a trick, have we been getting it wrong for a long time? Loehr and Schwartz certainly thought so, and their Ideal Performance State model suggested a hierarchy of ‘capacities’ that support performance based on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual attributes.

Is it ok to transcend the sport-business barrier?

The simple answer is yes but with care, we don’t always want to copy the ‘athletic’ approach nor are the context of business and sport exactly the same. They can on occasion be diametrically opposed. Loehr and Schwartz were however amongst the first to transcend the sport – business barrier, two well-known and well-respected sports scientists with many publications stretching over their careers, they viewed executives as ‘corporate’ athletes and if treated like the athletes they coached they believed they could sustain similarly high levels of performance.

In their eyes, for executives to perform they needed a multifaceted training programme like that of an athlete. Loehr and Schwartz were neither sport or business coaches, they didn’t focus on basic athletic or executive skills, they couldn’t teach someone to run faster or hit a ball farther, nor did they know how to coach negotiation skills or how to analyse a balance sheet, what they focused on where ‘secondary competencies’ or more specifically an executive’s endurance, strength, flexibility, self-control, and focus.

The authors brought psychology and physiology into the workplace or more specifically the boardroom, but also understood that “the demands placed on executives to sustain high performance day in day out, year in year out, dwarf the challenges faced by any athlete.” For example, the balance between performance and training are opposites, athletes usually have a 3-4 month off season and the life span of an athlete is usually less than 10 years whilst executives can expect to perform for 40-50 years 46-50 weeks a year. So, when we consider workplace performance, we can learn from sport, but we cannot simply copy it.

Does an Ideal Performance State work?

The overarching problem with the original proposition was not the content or complexity of what they suggested but simply the audience. It’s no coincidence that the number of ‘executive’ triathletes and iron-people grew exponentially post their HBR article as the C-suite started to battle it out not just in the boardroom but in the lakes, and on the roads and athletic tracks across the world. Executives embraced the fit body fit mind concept, ignoring perhaps the emotional and spiritual side, and threw themselves into a range of sporting endeavours and training. Loehr and Schwartz’s message certainly hit home with the readers of the Harvard Business Review, which to be fair to them, was probably their target audience; they were after all the ones who could afford their consulting fees. However just making the C-suite physically superhuman doesn’t really deliver organisational high performance; what you need is an Ideal Performance Culture, Environment and Mindset, after all we can walk the body and mind to the gym, but we have to be willing to participate.

I'll publish Part 2 next week.

Author: Lee Williams

Lee is a business mental toughness coach, management consultant and co-founder of My Wellbeing Index (MWI), a health-tech provider that specialises in helping organisations measure and baseline the employee wellbeing experience. MWI’s KAYA Wellbeing platform connects employees to wellbeing solution providers and provides a set of tangible return on wellbeing measures, so organisations can demonstrate wellbeing is improving. Lee has worked across a broad range of sectors and is recognised as an expert in customer management, continuous improvement, and employee engagement. He is passionate about people development and his research focus is mental wealth development through business mental toughness. Lee can be contacted via

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