Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back…the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. – William Hutchinson Murray, Mt Everest mountaineer

A Whisper in the Rafters of the World

It was a freezing blue April morning on the summit. We had been climbing the Mera glacier deep in the Nepal Himalaya for several hours since well before dawn. Breathing slowly with only half the oxygen available in the valley thousands of metres below. Exhausted, but elated, and unclipped from our ropes, we stood in the rafters of the world. Under a sky vast and silent.

Three weeks before I’d left Australia as a CEO fatigued and questioning my direction after five ‘dog’ years building a successful telecommunications start-up. But the mountain, and the Sherpa climbing team who had helped us summit, became my emotional fulcrum. What I heard that day began first with a whisper: it was a redefinition of what I thought I was capable of, and a much deeper gratitude for the contribution of others.

Several years later, I was coaching David, a senior IT executive in his early 40s. Considered from afar by his industry peers as successful, when David first called me he had many of the same signs that I had before I started that climb. He was overwhelmed and uncertain. I could hear it in his voice—and in what was missing between his words.

David was spending most of his energy worrying about why he wasn’t busting his targets. His sleep was often disrupted and punctuated by the pings of messages and emails. His time-crunched schedule rarely afforded time for the gym, or his beloved guitar. Come morning, David would often brush past his team for the sanctuary of his office. Physiologically, his sympathetic nervous system was red-lining far too often. And most of all, David felt that he had lost his way.

What set David apart was not his predicament, but his insight that while his work was loud, it was his internal music that had fallen almost silent. And he needed to do something.

The Paradox of Work

Work creates its own music. In that state, we can become lost in the symphony that is what British essayist Alain de Botton, calls the “pleasures and sorrows” of work. The processes and KPIs by which many professionals and executives in organizational life measure success represent the beat of someone else’s drum. Long-term strategies framed or approved by others shape the quarterly imperatives, and daily rhythms are dominated by relentless demands of schedules, meetings, and tasks.

To a leader in the thick of it, the concept of “inner work” can easily sound like an abstract priority. Drowned out by the cacophony of flighty capital, fickle clients, disengaged staff, nimble competitors, and looming automation, discordant disruption comes raucous, fast and multi-directionally.

So, amidst that din, a governing question arises: what is the leader’s primary responsibility? It is to direct collective attention where it needs to go, argues Daniel Goleman, a leading thinker on workplace emotional intelligence. But if bringing focus is the 21st century leader’s top job, then trying to achieve that in a state of confusion and disharmony is folly.

This article presents leaders with two aspects of inner work that they should not neglect. It starts by examining purpose, and then moves onto mind-body harmony. Importantly, both require conversations that the leader must first have with themselves. The article goes on to remind leaders of what is at stake for them and provides examples of success. Each section concludes with simple things leaders can start doing tomorrow.

Finding Purpose and Flow

When our sense of purpose falls mute we procrastinate. When we know what is important to us we are gifted with energy and direction, and the complicated becomes simple. In that state, there is flow—as mountaineer William H. Murray observed, “the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”

Purpose can have a lot to do with intrinsic motivation: that sweet spot of inner drive and action. In fuelling that state one thing many leaders seem to share is that they know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and where they want to go. Having those things provides clarity, but it also underwrites the authenticity necessary to enlist others in an endeavor.

Think of young Finnish programmer Linda Liuka, who in her mid-twenties juggled her career to kickstart an initiative to connect young women with coding. Rails Girls is now a global movement that has begun inspiring a generation of young women to resist gender stereotypes and embrace coding as a calling. Or Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who in 1915 subordinated his foundering quest to bravely lead his stranded crew across almost 1000 km of Antarctic ice and stormy seas in lifeboats to safety. Shackleton was propelled by ambition, but not defined by it.

Purpose is also another facet of performance. In a recent longitudinal study involving more than 5,000 executives, McKinsey & Co found that one of the three things that sets high-performing teams apart is their clear, shared sense of direction. And ask any head-hunter: having “purpose” is a key selection criterion to even get a place on those kinds of teams.

But life’s conditions are dynamic, so purpose becomes a cycle of periodic renewal. As powerful as it is when we have it, purpose is a lot like happiness—it’s not something we can go out and buy, or win in a lottery. It’s something we need to discover and cultivate. Periodically, we should remind ourselves what really matters.

Here is a three-step process you can try and spur that reminder. The first two benefit from a secluded environment, and the third from building on your relationships.

  1. Look back. Reflect on three situations when you felt successful. Ask yourself: what happened? How did it make me feel? Why did it matter to me? Now, consider how you’d introduce yourself to a new team.
  2. Look within. Sit down and ask yourself: who has had the most enduring impact on my life? What has been the pivotal event from which I’ve learned the most? What am I willing to fight for? Write down the answers.
  3. Listen to others. Your friends or colleagues can help—they know your reputation and can help you look in the mirror. Find three people who you trust and who know you well. Ask them: ‘What is most memorable about me?’

The Mind-Body Feedback Loop

Feeling overwhelmed is a commonplace modern malaise. #busy; emails; social media; chat; meetings; to-do lists; targets; competition; disruption. It’s no surprise that leaders are more likely to become overwhelmed by negative stress. The problem is that if this persists it has a detrimental impact on our ability to work and make decisions—and causes physiological damage.

Many studies have shown that accumulated negative stress has a mental and physical dimension. In crux situations, our brain and part of our nervous system automatically prepare us for a fight-or-flight response: increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. That’s super effective when our survival is on the line.

But the complications arise when the nervous system stays elevated. And big cities, as well as the connected, matrixed workplace that blurs the boundary between work and home, have myriad small triggers for stress. Under negative stress, our cognitive ability is impaired, and with it our decision making capabilities. Sleep often suffers, our bodies are taxed, and we’re more vulnerable to poor lifestyle choices, such as an unhealthy diet and skipping exercise, each putting more stress on the body.

Negative stress accumulates much like water in a bucket. At the tipping point, with nowhere else to go, negative stress eventually overflows, and like a floodwater, has destructive consequences at the workplace and at home. To try and alleviate negative stress we often start working longer hours, or seek “rewards” in the form of excessive screen-based entertainment or the temporary comfort of consumption. Instead of trying to compensate for the overflow, wouldn’t it be more effective if we could learn to drain off some of the water in the bucket in the first place?

This is why leaders who want to be more effective in the moment, and stay the course for success, make very intentional choices around their mind and body. They value their physical and mental health. They know that a neglected body will eventually affect their cognitive capacity and emotional intelligence, and a scattered mind will leave them prone to further stress and poor judgement.

Take Padmasree Warrior, one of Cisco Systems most senior executives. She meditates every evening and on Sundays routinely says “no” to digital devices. Or former Sydney Swans captain Brett Kirk and former Australian opening batsman Justin Langer. As athletes and coaches, they have attributed meditation to maintaining their wellbeing and performance, and inspire others to follow. Mindfulness is a practice with a heritage more than 2000 years old, but the science is catching up—increasingly demonstrating the positive impact of mindfulness on cognitive capacity, and to calm the nervous system and the feedback loops between mind and body.

So, it makes sense that in the face of the unavoidable pressures associated with complexity and uncertainty, successful leaders actively create routines to care for their minds and bodies. They typically defend 30-45 minutes a day, and will use this to undertake a high-impact workout, go for a reflective walk, or to find somewhere peaceful to sit and empty their mind. They understand that work schedules are unpredictable, and accept that perfection is elusive. But they also know that long-term consistency is what matters—and that starting today is better than putting something off until tomorrow.

Here are three things you can start (and defend) today:

  1. Experiment with mindfulness. Get up 10 minutes earlier. Sit in a quiet space. Use an app like Smiling Mind if it helps. Start with 5 minutes a day. Evaluate after a week. Try the exercise for 30 days and see if you can increase the duration. Celebrate.
  2. Join a training community. Yoga, cycling, crossfit, running, or whatever interests you. It helps if there are social relationships to support your accountability. Try this a couple of times a week for a few weeks. You could also consider a doing a before-and-after 3-minute aerobic capacity test if you would find that motivating. Don’t forget to celebrate.
  3. Try a new pattern. Isolate a better body or mind habit that you want to build. Set a modest target and one you’re confident you can exceed (don’t over-reach). Keep a log of what you do for four weeks. Discuss your experience with a friend.

The Whisper Becomes a Roar

I have returned to the memory of that day on the peak in the Nepal Himalaya often, especially in times of need. When I have doubted my capacity to push through a significant business challenge. When I have been beyond fatigue in an endurance cycling event. Or when I have doubted my capacity to work alongside others to affect something important. I can conjure the image, and I am back there—and in that moment I am stronger and clearer. That is testimony to the experience’s kinesthetic power.

But it also reflects the trajectory that day set me on, slowly at first, and inconsistent at times, but inexorably nonetheless, in terms of routines that can nourish me internally: meditation, reflection, and exercise. I cherish them, and they pay daily dividends to me and those I work with.

And for David too. I did not push David to follow my own choices. But I did scatter lightly beside his path some things like them during our coaching sessions—when his curiosity invited it. David’s key insight was his own: that it was his inner music that needed again to find harmony—and to do that he first had to silence the discordant voice of his inner critic.

In David’s case, his most influential commitment proved to be practicing daily gratitude through a journal for thirty days. This moment of commitment allowed a whole stream of events to arise in David’s favor, which he could not have foreseen beforehand. David is now attending to his work inside and out, his influence on his team is rising, and his potential for an even more senior executive role is being noticed.

Every Journey of a Thousand Miles

Whether you believe exceptional leaders are born or made, successful leadership is invariably realized through application and perseverance. Focusing on finding your purpose and unifying body and mind are two ways any leader can improve their chances of staying the course. And while the work may seem daunting, there is wisdom and encouragement in the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who observed that every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Postscript: other ways leaders can tune in

At The Everest Academy, we are developing wilderness experiences that aim to help leaders tune in too. Through discovery and reflection, they can accelerate their emotional development to lead high-performing teams. Our philosophy owes much to the ideas articulated in this article and the seminal model of Outward Bound, and has its analogue in McKinsey & Co’s Canadian backcountry immersion for executives. Motivation and body-mind harmony are unavoidably powerful cues in the wilderness.