The Little Talked-About Skills of Today's High-Performance Leaders

Today's world is so complex, and the rate of change is so fast that most leaders can't keep up. This rapid change and growing complexity are only adding to their overwhelming anxiety and fear. The leaders who rely on their experience and old habits are falling behind. In my work studying, interviewing, and coaching  high-performance coaches in sports and business executives, I've noticed an evolving skill set that sets apart good from great leaders.

Not many people are talking about these skills; fewer leaders are working on developing them. If you want to be a high-performing leader in today's rapidly changing and ever-growing complex environment, these are the skills to start developing.

1. Aware of their  Impulses
One of our strongest impulses as a leader is for action. Far too many leaders are sleepwalking through life, acting on every impulse, measuring the quality of their day by how productive they are. We all have lots of stuff to get done; poor leaders live as if they just keep working harder, they can get it all done. High-performance leaders know there will always be more they can do; they recognize their urge for more action, the impulse to do more and more, and they set boundaries on what's enough.

Train It: Think before you act. Ask yourself: What reasons do I have for taking this action? What will be enough for today? Then decide if you want to act on that impulse.

2. Noticing in Themselves
Meditation and journaling have become very popular. Both are valuable practices, but many people don't recognize the real value in these practices is to develop the skill of noticing. The skill is to first intentionally notice throughout our day what is coming up for us. When I ask clients what they are noticing in themselves, they often start with their behavior or their emotions. Deeper noticing moves to their thinking, and even deeper, it notices the shape and feeling in their body, as well as their breathing.

Train It: Practice transitioning from activity to activity. Whether it's moving from meeting to meeting or task to task, take 30 to 60 seconds to check in with yourself (body, breath, thinking, and emotions).

3. Noticing Outside of Themselves
When great leaders are attuned to what's going on inside of them, they can start to notice what's going on in others and in situations. They are able to separate their assessments from the facts, to step back and see the bigger picture, and notice what is coming up in others. They can see things as they truly are, not as they wish or fear them to be.

Train It: Take in the broader picture by widening your gaze. We often tend to focus our gaze on a particular individual or object; instead, try to visually take in the whole room. Next, ask yourself what is true in this situation? Keep asking that question and write down the facts.

4. Shifting their Internal State
If you can't lead your own nervous system, you won't be able to help the nervous system of others. Thus, the more stress and pressure we are facing (and the less time we have), the more important it is for us to make time for two things: movement and mindfulness. And yet, this is the time where we sacrifice those things. Mindfulness and movement are a way to reset our internal state.

Train It: Set reminders throughout the day to do breath work or identify key moments. For coaches I work with, these are moments throughout practices, games, and meetings. Start by noticing your current breath and then for 60 seconds choose a different breath; while I recommend the physiological sigh, you can use any technique such as box breathing, slow exhales, etc. Another way is to just move; it could be a workout, a fast-paced walk, or even just 60 seconds of a squat or dancing to a song at your desk.

5. Sleep
High-performance leaders don't view sleep as an inconvenience; they view it as part of their job and part of living. 

Train It: Skill #1 awareness of impulses is important here; commit to 7 or 8 hours of sleep and reduce or eliminate anything from your day that will prevent you from following through on that commitment.

6. Addressing the System
Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. So when they don't get the results they want in their personal lives or within their team, they don't look for quick fixes or silver bullets; they address the system—they go upstream.

Train It: When you are unhappy with the result or outcome, don't look for the right singular action that you hope will fix the problem; instead, ask: What led to this result in the first place? What changes can we experiment with in our system (people, processes, procedures, methods) to improve our outcomes?

7. Loose Attachment to Outcomes
High-performance leaders don't let go of the results. The bottom line (wins, profits, stock price) does matter. What they do, though, is loosen their attachment to outcomes and find motivation outside of the bottom line. As I heard Dr. Michael Gervais say on his podcast, "When you are motivated by winning, you give away all your power and leverage because you have focused on something you can't control." The key is to be more humble as a leader; don't fall for the trap of believing you are all-powerful and can control outcomes. You only influence outcomes.

Train It: When you feel attached to a certain outcome or result, step back and ask yourself two questions: 1. What good things will happen even if I don't get the outcome I want? 2. What can I do to create the conditions for good things to happen?

8. Laugh
Laughter is an emotional reset for the leader and the group and a powerful driver of psychological safety. You don't have to have a great sense of humor to laugh; you just have to take yourself and your work a little less seriously. Great leaders laugh with others and at themselves, not at others.

Train It: Look back on the week or the day and find the irony and humor even in the difficult moments.

9. Essentialist
Research shows when people look to improve something it's almost always adding something. High-performing leaders are comfortable NOT doing something that others feel they have to do. They are obsessed with eliminating and trimming the fat from ineffective and inefficient elements from their system.

Train It: Start each day with a To NOT Do List.

10. Consistently Connecting with People on their Team
A high-performing leader spends more time in 1:1 conversations with team members than average leaders believe is possible. They are building connections, getting feedback and perspective, and developing their people. They also create space for people on their team to connect; they don't just hope it will happen.

Train It: Commit to a consistent cadence of 1:1s with team members, communicate this commitment, and then create a schedule or checklist to track it.

11. Listening to Learn
High-performing leaders aren't just meeting with individuals when they have something they need to talk to them about; they are meeting with them consistently and asking, "What would you like to discuss today?" When they have something to discuss, conversations start with questions, not lectures or mentoring. Even when they give feedback or direction, they shut up and listen, recognizing they can learn from anyone at any moment they choose.

Train It: Before each conversation, start by getting present, noticing what's going on in yourself #2, and write down a few good questions for your conversation.

12. Confident in Who They Are Today AND Excited at Who they are Becoming
High-performing leaders are confident (arguably even arrogant) in who they are today. At the same time, they embrace and even are excited at who they are becoming.

Train It: Reflect on who you are today. Look backward to how you have grown over the last year or two. Look forward to who you want to become next. What will that growth mean to you? To others?

13. Grateful Mindset
Gratitude is both a mindset and a behavior. High-performing leaders not only show gratitude through various signs of appreciation, but they operate with a mindset of gratitude. They are truly grateful for the opportunity to lead, to impact, and the trust others have put in them.

Train It: Encountering loss can indeed deepen your appreciation for various aspects of life; however, you need not personally undergo such a setback to glean some of its profound benefits. Take a moment to contemplate the hypothetical scenario of losing your present leadership position—picture yourself being let go from your role. What aspects of your current position would you find yourself missing? This exercise prompts reflection on the intrinsic value and significance that your leadership role holds, offering insights into the meaningful components you might otherwise take for granted.

- JP Nerbun

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