The One Non-Negotiable Key to Effective Leadership (Energy)

I once worked for a great guy who claimed he only needed four hours of sleep a night.  He was constantly drinking coffee to “stay sharp” and his diet was out of control.  An elite athlete in college, he hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in years and his once finely tuned physique had developed “Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture Disease” – his chest had fallen into his drawers.  And he often was too tired to deal with the important, strategic issues that our organization faced, experiencing “fuzzy” thinking and lack of clear direction.  He put in a lot of hours and was dedicated to the job, but I now realize that when you’re tired, your effectiveness drops and you put more hours in because you’re not as effective.

Why is it that so many leaders ignore their own needs and find themselves exhausted, emotionally spent, and nursing several physical ailments?  Why are some leaders sacrificing themselves on the altar of their careers and organizations?  Why are they killing themselves?  In a Harvard Business Review article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” energy expert Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy write,

“Steve Wanner is a highly respected 37-year-old partner at Ernst & Young, married with four young children. When we met him a year ago, he was working 12- to 14-hour days, felt perpetually exhausted, and found it difficult to fully engage with his family in the evenings, which left him feeling guilty and dissatisfied. He slept poorly, made no time to exercise, and seldom ate healthy meals, instead grabbing a bite to eat on the run or while working at his desk.

Wanner’s experience is not uncommon. Most of us respond to rising demands in the workplace by putting in longer hours, which inevitably take a toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally. That leads to declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates, and soaring medical costs among employees.”

While many leaders with whom I’ve worked seem to think that energy “just happens,” it’s actually each individual’s responsibility to create and sustain his or her energy levels.  Just as elite athletes have to be in shape to play their games, leaders who aspire to be effective catalysts in their organizations must be in shape to show up as leaders.  And how they engage in these practices influences those they lead.

Energy is defined as “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.”  And there’s a simple formula that defines energy:

Energy = Nourishment – Toxins

The amount of energy you experience is directly related to the ratio of what nourishes or energizes you and what is toxic or draining to you.  In order to create energy, you have to make sure that there are more energizers than drains in your daily living.

Nourishment can come in two forms.  There is nourishment that’s nurturing and that which is soothing.  Think of that perfect date with your spouse or significant other where you go to your favorite restaurant, have your favorite server whose service is flawless, have a perfectly prepared meal of your favorite food, and enjoy the ambiance and company of each other.  That’s nurturing nourishment.  Now think about that day you have to be at a meeting in another location, grab a sandwich and a soda at a take-out place, and eat in the car while you’re thinking about what you need to remember to make your next meeting productive.  That’s soothing nourishment.  You can increase your energy creation by choosing nurturing rather than soothing sources of nourishment.

Toxins are those actions that drain your energy.  It’s the activity you hate doing but have to do; the person you have to work with, but who saps your energy because of their mood or their approach; the responsibilities you have that suck the life out of you.

One way of thinking about energy is that it can be created in four areas of life: physical, relational/emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.  Each of these can be considered a foundational pillar upon which all of our efforts are built.

Physical energy consists of diet, exercise, and sleep.  Working with a nutritionist or nutritional consultant, it’s important to understand what foods in what quantities can nourish us and which are toxic.  We’re experiencing a revolution in our understanding of foods and several, long-standing “truths” are being challenged.

According to the Mayo Clinic, we should engage in light-to-moderate cardio exercise such as brisk walking or swimming or vigorous activities such as running for at least ten minutes at a time, with strength training exercises at least twice a week.

Mayo Clinic also recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults.  Many leaders I work with get very little sleep on a consistent basis and think that they’ll “make up” the time on weekends.  Researchers find you can’t “catch up.” Without that consistent sleep, you may be experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional impacts. Author Alice Robb says,”What you think is existential angst might actually be a lack of sleep.”  How would you rate your practices to create physical energy?

Relational/emotional energy is often referred to as Emotional Intelligence.  Author Daniel Goleman says emotional intelligence is “the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions and the emotions of others.”  This includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management and are key elements of our energy foundation.  Having your personal “board of directors” who you can contact – those people who energize you when you’re needing it – is one way to make sure you’re fueling your relational energy.  After all, how many draining people do you run into during a typical day?  Who’s looking out for you?  Who’s that one person you’d like to talk to (not text or email) today?

Intellectual energy consists of those pursuits that help make new connections in your brain, challenge your thinking patterns, and help you continuously learn.  Hobbies, outside interests, learning something new or pursuing a lifelong dream are all examples of how you can keep your mind fresh and renew those synapse connections and neurons.  What’s that one thing you always wanted to learn how to do?  What’s keeping you from being a beginner?

Spiritual energy is the result of connecting to your understanding of your relationship to a superior being (God) and help shape your perspectives on life, death, and an understanding of your purpose.  Theologian Richard Foster, in his book, “Celebration of Discipline,” names 12 disciplines that he divides into Inward (meditation, prayer, fasting, study), Outward (simplicity, solitude, submission, service) and Corporate (confession, worship, guidance, celebration) Disciplines.  You don’t have to practice all of them; start with one and see if you notice it being energizing or draining.  We’re not talking about anything that you’d “have to do” but those spiritual activities that energize you (and they’re different for each person).

In each of these four areas, working with an expert or master can be helpful.  A personal trainer, nutritional consultant, or sleep expert can help you physically.  A counselor or coach may help you relationally and emotionally.  A teacher or mentor may help you intellectually.  And a pastor or spiritual advisor may help you with your spiritual practices.  Getting help is a great way to enter the stages of learning.

In my 30s and 40s, I paid no attention to any of these, because my entire focus was on work and “getting things done.”  My weight ballooned to more than 260 pounds.  I developed Type 2 Diabetes.  Friends said I wasn’t any fun anymore because all I did was talk about work – when I had time to spend with them.  I had no intellectual pursuits; no hobbies or new learning other than things related to my job.  I had no spiritual practices and had given up going to church in my 20s because, as an English teacher, I needed time to grade papers or catch up on sleep.  I used to joke that I attended St. Mattress, the Church of the Good Sleep.

Thanks to my first coach, Melissa McNair, and the profound questions she began asking me, I was able to understand these four foundations better and begin to build small practices that began to form the supports for the pillars of the foundation of the life I began to build.  I worked with a nutritional consultant, began to get 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis and joined a gym.  I also began to ride bicycle and eventually, was participating in 100+ mile rides.  My weight dropped, my clarity of thought increased, I began to feel good about myself, and my blood tests radically improved.  I felt energized.

Thanks to an understanding wife and sons, my relationships with family and friends took a front seat and became a priority.  I started to make January 1 the day I decided to name something new to learn (and got a lot of “points” when I decided one year that ballroom dancing would be something I’d be willing to learn).  And the regular attendee of St. Mattress found himself deepening his faith, experiencing a spiritual calling, attending seminary, and becoming an ordained minister on staff at our local neighborhood church.

This work wasn’t a “distraction” or an “extra,” but was essential to my understanding of my purpose in life and helped me to align everything I was doing around that purpose. I gradually stopped defining my life based on what I thought others thought I should be and do and began to create my own definitions.   It reminded me of why I was living and what I was living for.  It helped me appreciate the gifts I had been given and why and how I wanted to help others uncover the rich possibilities for their lives that are waiting to be claimed.  It changed my life and my outlook for my future.

So what regular physical practices are in your daily schedule?  How much sleep are you getting?  What are your meals like and how often and where do you eat them?  What are your consistent cardio and strength-training workouts?

How much time are you spending with your family and loved ones?  How often do you have “date night” with your spouse?  One-on-one time with your children?  What traditions have you established?  What memories are you making?  What about those friends you love to be around?  What have you initiated to be with them?  And when you’re with them, how present or distracted are you?  Are you able to “shut it down” and protect the boundaries?  (You have established boundaries, haven’t you?  Because if you haven’t, you’re allowing others to do it for you.)


Geoff, with sons Kyle and Marc at our annual “Opening Day” guys trip, 2017.

What activities that you enjoy the most are you engaged in?  What’s that one thing you always wanted to learn how to do?  Maybe it was playing a musical instrument.  Maybe it was painting.  Martial arts. Whatever it is, declare yourself a beginner, find a teacher or master or sensei and start learning.

What regular spiritual practices define your purpose and guide your life?  What big, existential questions are you trying to answer?  Who’s helping you in your exploration?  Who have you asked?

Remember that it’s up to you to be intentional in creating and sustaining the energy you need in order to show up ready to lead.  You’ll find yourself consistently refreshed with the extra boost you need on those days that do go long and those extended meetings with those who are draining.  Reclaim your life.

What’s the one, small thing you commit to trying today?

© Geoff Davis 12/7/18

7 thoughts on “The One Non-Negotiable Key to Effective Leadership (Energy)

  1. This is so wonderful and powerful at the same time. Your vulnerability to share is making a difference in my life. You are at the top of my gratitude list. Thanks for pouring out and modeling the path forward for many of us.

  2. Pingback: The Strategic Leader’s Work (Part 1) –

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