Several years ago I had a health scare. As a result, I dusted off the bucket list and thought long and hard about stuff I really wanted to do. Amongst other things, I had always wanted to run a marathon. Trouble was, the furthest I had run in my life was 10 kilometres and that was more than 15 years prior. I was now in my early 40’s and let’s just say, not in marathon shape.
Fast forward five years and I’ve now completed six marathons and more than 50 half marathons. It is reasonable to say I am obsessed. Marathon runners will understand.
The learning from that experience was profound. First of all, undertaking all that training, gives you a lot of time to think. Very quickly, I realised that unless my thoughts were positively focussed, I stood no chance of succeeding. The second learning was the challenge of overcoming setbacks. There were plenty, but developing the self-discipline to keep going when I least wanted to, changed my self-image. When things got really tough, I knew I was resilient and could succeed.
Throughout the hundreds of kilometres and countless hours of training, the constant positive messaging, creating vision of success and setting mini goals and slowly ticking them off one by one changed the way my brain worked. I didn’t know the science back then, but what I was experiencing was neuroplasticity in action. Session by session, I was changing the way the neurons in my brain fired together and created new neural pathways that sent me strong and very positive messages.
The benefits in the workplace were significant. My ability to cope with stressful situations increased, mostly through being able to re-frame and re-label many of the day to day matters that previously caused me anxiety. Was this incident really that important? Will it matter next week or next year? Sometimes the answer is yes and you need to spring into action to problem solve. Mostly however, the mini crisis can be averted by simply stepping back, re-framing and re-labelling what is actually going on here and how I feel about it. Better solutions are typically found in these moments.
For leaders, developing the ability to mentally take a step back, see a situation for what it really is and not get overwhelmed in the moment is a skill that can be developed. It is extremely difficult however, to develop this skill if it is being practised in the work setting alone.
When it comes to re-training our brains to interpret situations and send thoughtful and constructive messages instead of impulsive responses, leaders who set themselves major challenges outside of work, not only develop greater balance, but train their brains for success that can be adapted to the workplace. Skills learned from our non-work activities can be readily applied at work.
I am not suggesting marathon training is the answer. It could be learning a language or an instrument. Volunteering somewhere that takes you way outside your comfort zone. Whatever you choose, seek out something that requires long term goal setting, real commitment to accomplish and something that is quite removed from your leadership role.
Leaders who are obsessed with nothing else but their workplace and without balance and outside challenges in their lives are tough to work with and for. What are you doing to train your brain for constructive leadership?