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Leadership Peak Performance

Before I became an executive coach, I spent nearly 30 years in management consulting, working for big and small firms. In those years, what I noticed more than anything was how the speed in which we worked continued to increase exponentially. Towards the end of my tenure as a consultant, I began to get curious about whether human beings were truly wired to function at what we call, peak performance.

The notion of peak performance has been bandied about in leadership circles for decades. But what does it really mean to be at peak performance? What does it look like, how do you get there, and how to you sustain it?

Let’s take a look at the science.

Our physiology functions in direct opposition to the modern business world. We value intelligence, innovation, creativity, and fast-paced results. All these values rely on the mind to help us achieve our goals with little-to-no attention on how the body responds to these demands.

Human beings still have the same primitive wiring as our ancestors, which often functions as a stress antenna, setting off false alarms and triggering reactivity in our bodies that limits access to the part of our brain where executive functioning thrives. When the nervous system perceives a big stressor, it’s communicating with our primitive brain (amygdala) and not our higher-order thinking brain. In those instances, we do not have full access to those values we care so much about.

And yet, our world places little focus on how our bodies function—including, the nervous system—and certainly even less about how much our primitive wiring shapes who we are as leaders. Many of us feel the pressure to outperform the competition, maintaining our productivity at peak performance levels (see Figure 1).

The trouble with attempting to stay in the peak performance range is that we often don’t recognize the tipping point—that moment when we override our instincts to slow down. Stress sets in. Fatigue follows. We shut down and the immune system’s ability to fight off illness weakens, eventually leading to burnout and even worse, disease. We think we can keep going and avoid the consequences, but the reality is, when we override our instinct to slow down, we simply aren’t effective anymore. It’s physiologically impossible to maintain that pace and avoid poor decisions, lose our edge, reduce productivity, and lose our ability to think strategically. Simply put, human beingsare not wired for modern times. So, how do we change that? How can we stay at peak performance and minimize the risk of tipping towards burnout? We must slow down, pay attention, and listen to our instincts. When we learn how to do that, we can stay in that sweet spot of resilience where the visionary inside us is “in the zone.” Many of my executive clients scoff at the idea of slowingdown. What if I lose my edge? How can I stay competitive? Why would I do that and lose my best attributes as a top performer? Here’s my answer: If you want to continue to accelerate your growth, you needfull access to yourexecutive brain. That can only happen if you are in a regulated body. What’s more, nervous systems naturally “ping” off each other. When a leader is dysregulated, it often has an impact on their ability to be compelling, confident, and influential. On the contrary, a nervous system that is regulated is contagious. If you are regulated, those around you will feel more at ease, more compelled to listen, and willing to follow you. So, how do you regulate your nervous system so you can stay in peak performance? Through self- regulation practices which can be achieved in three easy steps: 1. Slow down every day for at least 30 minutes (your speech and your pace of movement). Try long, deep breathing in those 30 minutes (inbreath through the nose, outbreath through the mouth).

2. When you are in the slow down practice and breathing, pay attention and see if you can start to notice sensations in your body (heart beating, breath entering or leaving your body, gravity underneath you, etc.). If you do, you are present (if you don’t, it simply means you need more time).

3. Between practices, start to notice your instincts. When you get a signal from that instinct in your gut, trust it. Don’t override what it tells you. It may be time not to act quickly but rather, slow down and make a more thoughtful decision.

Remember: peak performance isn’t possible to sustain if you don’t take time to slow down so that your body-brain connection can catchup. Be thoughtful about pacing when you need to accelerate and when you need to slow down. You’ll be far more compelling as a leader and a far better decision-maker.

Rebecca A. Ward, LMFT, SEP, PCC, is the author of The Paper Tiger Syndrome: How to Liberate Yourself from the Illusion of Fear. She is a business consultant and executive coach, author, speaker, and licensed therapist. With more than 25 years of experience as a management consultant and leadership coach, she brings a wealth of knowledge about how stress can erode the health of executives and the organizations in which they lead. For more information, please visit and follow Rebecca on Instagram.



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