Leadership Resilience Step Two: Energy Management

By Dave Schrader

In my last post, I encouraged us to create enough space in our calendars to intentionally practice one or two of disciplines that create resilience to the stress of leading through major change.  It’s often a challenge to find time, but the good news is that a little effort and conscious use of time goes a long way toward improving our level of sustainable performance.

A vital category of disciplines (practices) has to do with how well we manage our physical energy.  This is where resilience practices must begin; without conscious attention to our health and our bodies, we operate at an energy deficit, often feeling tired and irritable, resulting in our leadership abilities being impaired.

Research by the Human Performance Institute has shown that the three practices below lead to higher, more sustainable energy:

  • Energy output is sustained by oscillation. Push hard and then recover fully.
  • Eating strategically: Eat light, eat often.
  • Movement creates energy: Never go more than two hours without moving.

“Energy oscillation” means that we proactively manage our schedules to alternate times of high energy demand with periods of recovery.  Think of athletic training here.  When someone goes to the fitness center to lift weights, they alternate between lifting weights and resting between sets.  And most trainers recommend doing a weight lifting routine only every other day: the rest we get on the “off” days allows the muscles to repair themselves and become stronger.  In each case, we push ourselves hard and then allow enough recovery time so that we can push hard again.

The recovery time is key.  Just as sleep in between each of our days is key.  It by not by working hard, but by resting and recovering that we get stronger!

This oscillation is found all around us in a thousand examples, but because of mindsets probably linked to the industrial revolution and the machine age, we seem to think we can ignore this fundamental biological law and push ourselves endlessly without consequence, just as we push machines to run 24/7 to achieve maximum output.  This is a subtle trap which the ego embraces naturally because when we over-index on production as a measure of our worth, we will often deny our biological needs for rest and recovery in order to crank out another presentation, or attend yet another meeting, or answer more emails.

The truth is that, by resting in between our hard pushes of productivity, we become stronger and more resilient as time goes on.  As we recover, we build capacity.  As we recover, we regain our perspective.  As we recover, we rediscover our sense of purpose and meaning.  And each of these is essential to wise leadership the next day or week or month.

The alternative is to pretend that we don’t need rest (“I’ll sleep when I die!”) and push hard without interruption as if our work lives were ultra-marathons that never ended.  We wake up tired from late-night screen time, stumble through our days hopped up on caffeine (fake energy), make decisions in a fog, and wrestle with a vague anxiety that we’re not really performing at our peak, which is true.

Over time, a career led like this leads to burn-out, cynicism (loss of hope), shallow relationships (Who has time to sit and talk heart-to-heart?), and illness.  Pretending this is a required level of heroics is not noble; it is delusional.  If we’re not taking care of ourselves by building rest and recovery into our schedules, we’re not serving our team, our organization transformation, our patients, or our families.

So, rather than think of work as a marathon, think of it as a series of sprints (catch the connection to Agile??).  Sprint fast and hard, then rest and get ready for the next sprint.  Each time you oscillate between high-output and full-recovery, you’ll return to the game a stronger and more capable leader.  You’ll find your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions all have sufficient energy for the challenges that leadership brings.

Rest and recovery come in a variety of shapes and forms.  Here are a few examples you can incorporate into your daily, weekly, and monthly routines:

  • Every 90 minutes throughout the workday, change the kind of work you are doing. If you are in meetings, switch to email.  If you have been writing at your computer, walk around and talk to others.  A change in our focus is actually restful for the brain.  Don’t do the same kind of work for many hours in a row if you have a choice.
  • Take true breaks of 15-20 minutes in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and take a real lunch at which you stop working and focus on enjoying your meal. Don’t eat at your desk.
  • I’m going to be provocative: as a general rule, don’t take work home in the evening. Use your evening to wind down, be fully present with family or friends, enjoy a good meal, read something nourishing to you, and prepare for sleep with a bedtime routine that tells your body it’s time for bed.
  • If you must take work home, do it earlier in the evening if possible, rather than right before bed, since research shows that sleep is disrupted by this habit.
  • Take one full day off every week. Most choose Saturday or Sunday.  Don’t do normal work at all on that day and, instead, find activities that are restful and playful for you.
  • Once a month, spend several hours in conscious reflection on how your life and work are going. Ask yourself if you’re becoming more and more your true-self, finding ways to lead and serve that use your talents and strengths for the greater good.  The sense of perspective you get from this exercise will provide you with a source of sustainable energy to get you through the full days and weeks ahead.
  • Take your annual vacation time! I’m speaking mainly to the Americans reading this since we have a pattern of not taking our vacations, so we can keep grinding away on the job.  This is more foolish than noble, for the obvious reasons of potentially burning out and setting a bad example for those we lead.

The bottom line? Downtime is productive time. Push hard yes, and then recover well.  Get into the rhythm that builds leadership resilience, strength, and wisdom.


Dave Schrader, Partner of the Full Circle Group and The Leadership Circle is a seasoned leadership advisor with over 30 years of experience supporting senior and mid-level leaders as they increase the quality of their engagement where it counts the most for strategic success. He has an extensive background guiding wilderness expeditions as a crucible for developing high-potential leaders. He has his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University; a Master’s Degree in Experiential Education from the University of Akron; and a Bachelor’s Degree in Management from Pennsylvania State University.

Dave Schrader

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