Taper: An Essential Element of High-Performance Leadership

It is all about the taper.

In a former life, I was an exercise physiologist and competitive swimming coach. In my youth, I was a competitive swimmer.

None of us were famous, neither the coach nor the swimmers. We had a mix of talent. Some were national champions and record holders, and most were not. However, all of us strove to perform at our very best, especially for the big tests – the major championships. To be at our best, though, we needed rest.

Peak performance required a taper.

Tapering in endurance sport is a structured rest period, often lasting days to weeks and it is designed in a way to result in peak athletic performance. The most substantial taper is always at the end of a lengthy period – a season, a year; a two-year cycle for some athletes; a four-year cycle for Olympic athletes. There are also shorter tapers built in at regular intervals within the longer training cycles. During taper, the body rests, recovers, and becomes stronger.

Successful tapers are a mix of precise, intense training, substantial rest periods, mental focus exercises, meditative visualization, dietary management, and a restriction of extracurricular activities that could be a distraction or a drain of energy. Taper hones muscles and minds to be competition ready. The mental exercises and visualization sharpen focus. Careful management of diet fuels and shapes the body. Taper hones the whole athlete – physical, mental, and spiritual – ideally achieving the perfect balance for peak performance.

Many decades later, I’m now an executive leadership coach. At first blush, my current career and life chapter are a universe away from my former. Yet, I’ve come to find that being a high-performing leader is much like being a high-performing athlete. Leaders are, in fact, corporate athletes.

On the playing field or in the boardroom, high performance depends as much on how people renew and recover energy as on how they expend it, on how they manage their lives as much as on how they manage their work.

– Jim Lohr & Tony Schwartz

Overall, in executive leadership, we trend towards not paying enough attention to our need for rest. Many don’t get enough sleep or take time away from work, and we contribute excessive hoursWe’re always “on,” and expected to be, by both ourselves and others. The problem is that the end game of leadership without pause is burnout. The equivalent for athletes is Over-training Syndrome. The mental and physical consequences of the two are nearly identical.

We can do that, always be ‘on,’ – for a time. But, then the Universe will come knocking on your door to exact the price.

“We can do that, always be ‘on,’ – for a time,” one of my clients recently stated. “But, then the Universe will come knocking on your door to exact the price.” That knock on the door may come as fractured relationships, substance abuse, mental illness, or shoddy work and bad leadership, maybe with a lost job, but the Universe always shows up to extract the price.
Performing at your peak as a leader requires that you are well and rested – physically, mentally, and spiritually. High-performing leadership needs all of you. You can’t be at your best if you haven’t created a cadence of pauses in your world so that you can attend to how you are as a being.

High-performing leadership isn’t so much about what you do. It’s about who you are. You must be well, to lead well.

High-performing leadership requires a taper.

Michael Hein
About the author

Michael Hein, MD has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.
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