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Steps to Executive Renewal - Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership


Snapshot: Leadership has been described as a role involving chronic stress punctuated by periods of acute tension. Though typically, the working environment places little value on personal renewal, successful leaders learn to deal with the stress in their professional and personal lives by developing effective practices to revitalize themselves. They keep going by balancing stress with effective means to renew their depleted emotional and physical reserves. Self-awareness is the first step towards personal growth. Meaningful and purposeful action is second, followed by personal accountability. The most effective leaders honestly take stock of their current situation holistically: Intellectual, Physical and Emotional. We will present each component of renewal successively, starting with this one.

Based on our experience with executives and our review of the best thinking on the Intellectual component of renewal, we have identified some consistent, albeit unexpected, themes.

Self-awareness: Research shows that high-performing leaders focus on their current situation using as few filters as possible. They strive to see themselves as others see them. But getting honest feedback is often difficult. People are frequently wary of disappointing leaders with bad news. Yet, the status quo becomes even more uncomfortable; distressed executives try desperately to keep up with the appearances of being in control. They tend to deny that anything is wrong – first to themselves, then to colleagues, friends and family. They frequently blame others for their predicament and see themselves as the victim. In the worst cases, they take out their frustrations on the ones they love the most – spouses and children. Some try to numb their pain by consuming too much alcohol or some other intoxicant, overeating or indulging in casual sex. The good news, though, is that these problems can be identified before they become too serious. There are many subtle clues that alert us that something is wrong: Are decisions harder to make? Am I working harder with fewer results? Am I always feeling tired and stressed? Am I forgetting how to laugh? Am I yearning for a way to escape? Change becomes possible when we become aware that we are unaware.

Action: The challenge is not just to be aware of the problems that are undermining a leader’s performance but to tackle them in an effective and timely manner. While it is important to know that our emotional and physical reserves are depleted, and better yet why, it is vital that we take meaningful action. Paradoxically though, overwhelmed executives must stop believing that feverish activity is the answer. It is not. Feverish activity leads mostly to wrong activity. Leaders must learn that, even in the midst of very serious difficulties, they have to slow down, reflect and gain insights into the true nature of their problems. To renew themselves, executives have to set optimistic yet attainable objectives. They must create and then follow a comprehensive action plan to achieve them. This provides leaders with a sense of control over their lives. It is the spark of renewal. However, it is difficult and takes time. Positive, repetitive reinforcement fueled by a deep sense of purpose is key to lasting success. A good coach can offer valuable assistance here by providing perspective, feedback and guidance within a safe and confidential environment.

Accountability: The most effective leaders hold themselves personally accountable for their actions each day. Some keep a daily accountability log where they measure how closely they are following their action plan: Did they get their lunch-hour exercise session in? Were they home for dinner with the family on time? This type of monitoring allows them to deal with their failures and celebrate their successes. Many leaders also hold themselves accountable to a trusted friend or advisor, further reinforcing their commitment to purposeful renewal. 

Renewal requires courage, optimism, enthusiasm and resilience. Leaders who pay attention to the Intellectual, Physical and Emotional components of renewal are almost always happier and more effective than those who do not.


Snapshot: Leadership has been described as a role involving chronic stress punctuated by periods of acute tension. Many leaders respond to stress by working harder and longer, often overlooking the physical dimension of energy. This is a fundamental mistake; if left unchecked, it may eventually lead to executive burnout, even breakdown; successful leaders realize that they must revitalize their bodies to remain effective and stay in control. Based on our experience with executives and our review of the best thinking on renewal, we have identified the following major themes.

Based on our experience with executives and our review of the best thinking on renewal, we have identified the following major themes – many familiar, all are important.

Exercise and breathing: In our increasingly sedentary world of work and play, regular physical activity is essential to our overall wellbeing. Exercise helps control body weight, a growing problem, and significantly increases our alertness and vitality. In some studies, executives who exercise regularly demonstrate a 70% improvement in their ability to make complex decisions. Why? Exercise improves our breathing. Deep, smooth and rhythmic breathing provides more oxygen to the brain and other vital organs. It improves our ability to manage our emotions (anger and anxiety), to sustain concentration and to think creatively. What is truly extraordinary is that so many people exercise so little. “No time”, they say. But, effective leaders find the time – early in the morning, just before supper, or some other time. They exercise 3-5 times a week for 30 minutes, typically 20 minutes of aerobics (running, jogging, dancing etc.), followed by 10 minutes of weights, push-ups and cool-down. For motivation, some find a personal trainer or a buddy to push them on. Others monitor their progress by keeping a personal log of their sessions.

Healthy eating: Stressed, overworked, executives often wolf down the wrong foods at irregular hours. North American executives gain on average over 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) a decade following university, with weight excess peaking between 55 and 64. Much of this comes from eating junk food while multitasking long hours at their desks. Eating healthier, like exercise, has obvious benefits for looking better and improving overall health. But, it doesn’t mean giving up eating cheeseburgers, fries or ice cream altogether. The key is balance and moderation. It is worth repeating that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Generally, people who eat a nutritious breakfast, including whole grains, proteins and fruits, have more energy and lose more weight than those who eat later in the day – even though they consume the same amount of calories. Nutritionists recommend that we eat snacks from different food groups (yogurt, graham crackers, an apple, celery sticks with peanut butter or dry cereal) at two to three-hour intervals to maintain high energy levels and avoid overeating.

Finally, we should limit our intake of coffee, tea and colas; caffeine causes dehydration and fatigue. Better to drink eight glasses of water a day.

Sleep: North Americans frequently suffer from serious sleep deprivation. While the average human needs between seven to eight hours of sleep a night to function optimally, sleep needs vary by age, gender and genetic predisposition. After age 50, for example, people sleep on average 3 minutes less a night per year. Still, 63% of us sleep less than eight hours a night, and one-third less than 6 ½ hours. High fitness levels typically improve the quality the soundness of our sleep and allow us to perform well with less. But overall, research shows that mental performance – reaction time, concentration, memory and logical/analytical reasoning – declines steadily as our sleep deficit increases. And, the later people work at night, the less efficient and more mistake-prone they become. Efficient leaders understand that brief periods of rest are critical to sustaining energy over long hours. Naps represent a form of strategic recovery. A nap of just 40 minutes has been shown to improve performance markedly, in some instances up to 34%. But, napping has not generally entered the North American business way of life. Enlightened self-interest suggests that it should.

Physical energy is derived from exercise and the patterns of our breathing, the foods that we eat and when we eat them, and the quantity and quality of our sleep. Physical activity is the raw fuel of executive renewal. 


Snapshot: While the workplace has become safer over the years, it has also become much more stressful. Job security due to cost-cutting and technological change, the demand for always higher productivity, and the blurring of boundaries between home and work brought on by the proliferation of communication tools are having serious consequences on companies’ bottom lines. According to some estimates, the stress in the workplace costs the US economy about $300 billion dollars a year due to lost productivity. Two-thirds of employees complain of the impact of work-related stress on their lives. One in four has missed work due to stress, and medical costs and employee turnover are up significantly. Successful organizations realize that the psychological wellbeing of their employees is an issue they must address.

Based on our experience with executives and our review of the best thinking on renewal, we have identified the following major themes.

It all starts at the top: When leaders are in the grips of overriding stress and loneliness, they try desperately to keep up the appearance of being in control. They tend to deny that anything is wrong – first to themselves, then to colleagues, friends and family. Overwrought executives frequently become self-absorbed, often blaming others, including “unsupportive” bosses, for business reversals. Later, they disengage from colleagues and ultimately from work. The more preoccupied they are with their fears and concerns, the less energy they have for positive action. Self-absorption is ultimately destructive. Employees carefully gauge their boss’s body language for clues about the company’s fortunes. This is the corporate equivalent to reading tea leaves. If the CEO appears downcast, it must mean that the company’s results are bad and that she is under immense pressure to improve them. Can lay-offs be far off? Left unchecked, this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy: employee morale turns bad, and, ultimately, the organization’s performance suffers.

Successful executives are aware of their impact on others. They are emotionally resilient and bounce back quickly from disappointment, frustration and loss. Many visualize positive outcomes. They exude enthusiasm, self-confidence, realistic optimism, and genuine concern for their employees’ wellbeing. Effective executives hold themselves and their employees accountable for getting the job done and living the values of the organization. In this environment, common sense and good judgment are expected, cultivated, and celebrated; and information flows freely. Yet, leaders must deal with difficult, unpleasant situations where there is no elegant solution for everyone. Consider lay-offs. Employees scrutinize very carefully the way their organization treats laid-off workers. Were they offered remedial training, for example? Were their financial settlements fair? The answer to these and other questions inform the survivors as to how they might be treated down the road. They have the additional concern of being required to do more with less.

The most effective leaders are compassionate. They set aside their own self-interest to be of service to others. They tune in with their employees’ needs and wants. Successful leaders engage their employees in meaningful exchanges of ideas with tangible follow-up. This includes acting on suitable employee suggestions to improve business and production processes and implementing appropriate HR procedures that reflect the changing workplace: training programs, flex-time, career development, mentoring and coaching; Compassion empowers both leaders and employees and leads to increased creativity and resilience in the workplace.

A growing body of literature highlights the importance of positive emotions in alleviating the toxic consequences of unrelenting stress in the workplace. 

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