Lessons learned from 100 Executives & Endurance Athletes

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Bryan Gillette is a ProjectNext Leadership Associate and a former executive, accomplished consultant, executive coach and published author.  Below are excerpts from his recent book, EPIC Performance.

Imagine going back in time to January 2020 and asking your CEO if all employees could work from home full-time. What would they have said? Likely, “Pack your desk, your employment is no longer needed.” Two months later when the virus was rapidly spreading around the world, the answer would be: “Get it done by the end of this week.”

Leaders were asked to do the unthinkable. Many executives had earlier resisted working from home for a variety of reasons while others had allowed it for a few roles. Few saw it as a solution for their entire organization. It was considered an “unthinkable” or “impossible” solution. That all changed in March 2020.

Several years ago I interviewed 100 leaders about how they accomplished some extraordinary feats. Achievements others may say “couldn’t be done.”  From those interviews and seeing how so many leaders successfully navigated these last two years, I learned that “impossible” is more a state of mind than a reality. What common traits enable some leaders to accomplish the “impossible?”

1. Comfortable with being uncomfortable
2. Ability to see around the obstacles
3. Confidence in themselves

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

The leaders I spoke with pushed themselves in all aspects of life. Heather, an Executive Director, had an original goal of running 7 marathons. Knowing she could easily do that, she upped it to 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. Another executive, David, said, “I always took jobs that I didn’t know how to do but which excited me.” Erik, the under-40 up-and-coming leader set a goal to be CIO for a major organization by the time he was 40. His strategy was, “Do things that make my palms sweat.”

Heather completed those 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents. Erik became CIO for a major biotech firm just before his 40th birthday. And David continues to take on jobs where the unknown often outweighs the known.

When was the last time you took on a project that made your palms sweat?

See Around the Obstacles

When navigating through challenging situations, we often stare at the obstacles in front of us versus the path to safety. As a longtime cyclist, I was taught to look at the clear path forward and not the rock in the road. When we focus on the obstacles, our brain guides us in that direction. And when we focus on the clear path in front of us, our brain guides us in that direction.

Whether on a bike or in the board room, it is good to look where you want to go versus where you don’t. While it is important to know what obstacles stand in your way, they should not be your complete focus.

Are you spending more of your time staring at the obstacles or the path forward?

Have Confidence in Themselves

Plan A rarely works. Fortunately, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet for Plans B, C, and D. As one successful technology founder told me, “most people fail right before they were to succeed because they just gave up.” While everyone I spoke to had had some failures, it wasn’t because they gave up after the first, second, or third try.

Each person had a strategy for how to deal with challenging times. Some focused heavily on ‘their why’ and kept looking at the big picture. Some focused so much on the details and what needed to be done today to get to tomorrow. Some did both. But all had strategies to not stop and confidence in their ability to move forward.

As one founder of a successful company who ended up selling it for almost 4 billion dollars said, “We had confidence in ourselves and believed the idea was possible?” That was a theme I heard from many others as well.

How can you increase your level of confidence?

These are a few of the key lessons that lead to epic performances. What have you accomplished that you never thought you could?