5 Lessons on Leadership from High Performance Psychologist Dr. Mike Gervais
Briana Harper | April 06, 2021
Work Better10 min read
Every leaders’ bar is set to high performance. That’s the aspiration. The Holy Grail and the One Ring.
Ifhigh performance were a giant thermometer taped to the wall behind to your computer, what would it say? And what would the units of measure be?
High-performance psychologist Dr. Mike Gervais has studied this question for over 20 years with the NFL, Olympic medalists, music artists, corporate leaders, and more. As you’d expect, players on the Seattle Seahawksuse a different measuring stick than the space jumper at Red Bull or the CEO at Microsoft.
While high performance in business can be viewed through a lens of standard metrics–customer retention, recurring revenue, company valuation, etc. – defining it for yourself isn’t as clear.
How do you define high performance when it’s not tied to a company mission or goals? How do you measure high performance across a career? A life?
Dr. Gervais shares five lessons for defining and sharpening leadership performance:
1. High performance means many things. You define what it means for you.
Havingtrained over 30,000 people to thrive under pressure and adapt in environments of frequent chance and uncertainty, Dr. Gervaishas many answers. But the answer to this, he says, you have to find for yourself. Here are some questions to dig into:
“Is high performance about going fast? Is it about doing somethingthat no one else has ever done? Or the thing that has never been done in your family? Is high performance about leading or listening? Is high performance about resilience and agility?
“Most importantly: Can you live a high-performance life when it’s busy? When you’re burdened by the inability to meet the demands of the moment?”
2. In high performance environments, recovery is just as important as training.
This lesson comes from the elite sports world, where everyone is fighting forrazor thin gains towards excellence. Someone at peak strength and peak agility must be as fully committed to recovery as they are to training. Is the same not true in elite business?Dr. Gervais explains:
“Prior to 2020, we would bang our chest bragging that we weren’t sleeping well. That we are grinders. That we are hustling at all costs. That sleep is for later and vacations, who takes vacations?In the world of elite sport where the purpose is clear and the consequences are high, people bring all of themselves into that environment.
“[Elite athletes] don’t check parts of themselves, like in the business world, and hope they make it home with enough energy to be their best.”
3. People in elite business are training their craft, but not their body or mind.
If elite athletes bring all of themselves– mind, body, and craft – to the playing field, why don’t business leaders bring all of themselves to the office?People assume if your craft isn’t a physical skill, then your body isn’t really part of the equation. Dr. Gervais explains:
“Most people I know in elite business are ridiculously spending time on craft. They know they need to get to their body, but it’s hard because of how much time they’re spending on craft. And the third bucket [mind] is almost non-existent.
“So, the question is: Where did you go formally train your mind? If you didn’t, that means you programmed your software mostly by yourself.”
4. Beingopen to change isn’t enough. You must run towards change.
The upheavalsof 2020 caused different reactions in people: some became more open to change, while others were fatigued by change. How do elite athletes and performers respond to change? Dr. Gervaissays they aren’t shaken by it. They’re looking for it.
“It’s not: Am I open to change? It’s: I’m running everyday into environments that teach me how to change. And what teaches me how to change is getting at the edge of my capabilities where I’m not quite sure if I can do the thing I’m trying to do. I’m working to get to those brief moments in the day to be exposed.
“It’s a shifting of perspective, which is: How can I create the environment where I learn what I need to change to get better?”
5. No one does the extraordinary alone.
We can’t experiencethe extraordinary – at home or at work – alone. We need people, and not just people whose skills complement our own. Weneed to know people, because when things get hardthe natural response is to unlock arms.Dr. Gervais describes an executive training session at Microsoft:
“When we got to the self-discovery part of our training, [CEO Satya Nadella] stopped the room. He lookedat his 16 direct reports and said, ‘What we’re trying to do here is hard. It’s beautiful. It’s important. It’s ambitious. We need to know each other.’
“He created the space for him and his team to have clarity of their personal philosophy and share it with each other. There’s a moment of vulnerability. A moment of intimacy. A moment of, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re about.’”