During several years of work with leading executives, talent development, and more than 2000 personal assessments, I haven’t yet seen any examples of extreme sports improving the performance of employees. I’ve seen how sports can increase performance level, but not the extreme kind. On the contrary, I’ve experienced how leading executives that do extreme sports become more focused on management and completely forget about leadership. And if the extreme becomes the means to raising the performance bar, it can prove damaging to the organization in the long term.
1,045 leading executives from Berlingske Business’ panel were asked if they do extreme sports such as running a marathon, doing an ironman, participating in Vasaloppet, mountain climbing and so on. A total of 27.8 per cent of the respondents who said they do extreme sports also said that it has improved their status as a role model. This is certainly food for thought, and I hope that the remaining 72.2 per cent have a more balanced perception of themselves for purposes of comparison. If this is not the case, we face managerial challenges at a key level and the road to long-lasting Danish economic growth seems longer.
The equation is simple. A healthy performance culture is built on healthy role models. When reversed, performance cultures become unhealthy if the role models are leading executives with a skewed perception of what health and wellbeing is in practise.
Leading executives hold extreme jobs, and extreme sports as a supplement isn’t sustainable in the long term. Human beings aren’t fit to live up to extreme demands on their own abilities regardless of their intelligence and abstraction level. The Tour de France riders are focused on quick recovery. And it’s during the recovery that their talent is developed enhancing their performance at the next stage. This enhances their ability to create successful results and deliver long-lasting performance.
My experience shows that our skilled executives, at least the successful group of leading executives, are leaning more towards intellectual thinking. My experience also shows that extreme sports, adrenaline rushes and enormous amounts of endorphins aren’t means to an end, rather a balance between the physical, mental and intellectual is preferred to ensure a constant performance level.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a research-based article for The Management Hothouse in cooperation with a professor at Copenhagen Business School. I further developed the AMO theory which states that our work-performance is determined by Abilities, Motivation and Opportunities, i.e. the employee’s ability and desire to as well as possibility of making an effort.
However, when it comes to the actual job performance of the employees, the three factors above don’t make up the equation alone. Job satisfaction also plays a major part therefore adding to the equation so it becomes A x M x O x job satisfaction = the overall performance. If one of these factors equals zero, the total score, i.e. the overall performance, becomes zero.
The extreme leading executives may thrive on their own but the performance culture that their extreme behavior, values and priorities create isn’t necessarily the kind their organization thrives on, or the kind which creates a diverse talent portfolio.
At the same time, an unhealthy performance culture results in a culture perception where job satisfaction isn’t part of the equation or is misinterpreted as a measurable quantity. Thus the bar may be raised too high for the individual so even the most talented employees can’t keep up.
Extremity doesn’t provide a breeding ground for the kind of individual or organizational care that fosters a results-oriented workplace where job satisfaction is high and leadership is prioritized. Extremity doesn’t benefit the need for having the right employees and skills at the right time, as the endurance of the employees at all levels may be challenged and the risk of developing a weak organization is enhanced.
Two extremes in the form of extreme jobs and sports may result in a misguided focus relative to what drives people and makes sense because the focus is fixed on something externally measurable. In the worst cases, getting lost in the external extremes may result in a form of organizational misguidance, where leadership is solely based on the concrete measurables, and thus the human element is lost.
All in all, getting lost in the extremities risks completely comprising an organization’s work with the human side of things, which true leadership is anchored in, and which is often de-prioritized by leaders with extreme jobs.
Founder of the Global Voices project. Belongingness officer and an experienced People Executive.