Lighten Up and Loosen Up for Peak Performance

It is a safe assumption that the vast majority of executive leadership jobs require a consistent and heavy dose of intensive thinking and concentration. Our working memory for learning new activities, based in the prefrontal cortex, and our left brain that processes critical thinking, problem solving, and other forms of highly focused attention, require a lot of energy to function optimally and fatigue easily. Overuse for a prolonged period, like pushing or flooring the accelerator of a car and not taking our foot off the gas, will eventually take its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally. With heavily taxed and depleted resources we get exhausted, overwhelmed or distracted.

We can become tightly focused on our problem and “over-think”, or suffer “analysis paralysis”, when we could make a decision and take action. We can lose sight of our emotional and situational awareness while absorbed in concentration and heavy thinking as we emerge from our office and proceed down the hallway. We may be acting with noble intent focused on our tasks, but experienced by others as charging like a rhinoceros and interpreted as closed and intimidating.

What are some options? For starters, neuroscience research has shown that even a few minutes of slowing down and quiet mindfulness each day helps increase attention and focus, increase perception, generate more insights, and improve resilience. Moreover, better self-regulation, the ability to be more in charge of attention, emotions, focus, impulses, and reactivity is the very heart of successful leadership.

We can dial down the intensity and heat of the moment by lightening up. In “The Art of Possibility”, Ben Zander advises every leader to always remember Rule Number 6. This rule is very simple: Don’t take yourself so seriously. When asked what the other rules are for leaders he replies simply, “There aren’t any.”

We can also back off the throttle by loosening up. I discovered this early one morning before engaging a day in an intensive workshop. As participants were gathering and conversing prior to the beginning of the session, one of my cohort participants asked me a simple, curious question: What do you do to loosen up before entering the arena? In the moment I responded that I breathe, take time to calm and center myself. These are all effective for me and highly recommended actions. However, I later realized I had not directly answered her question. She hadn’t asked how I calmed myself, she asked me what I did to loosen up.

Dr. Brené Brown shares some guidepost behaviors and actions for wholehearted living in “The Gifts of Imperfection”. One of these guideposts is cultivating laughter, song, and dance and letting go of cool and ‘in control’. When we laugh, sing, and dance, we move. When we move, we loosen up. We back off the hard core intensity and seriousness. This enables us to operate less exclusively from the head and bring more from the heart. I’ve discovered that what helps me loosen up before entering the arena is listening to music. I enjoy getting out of my head a bit and going with the flow of high energy positivity of the Beatles, Steely Dan or Foo Fighters!

How can you lighten up the intensity, back off flooring the accelerator, and take yourself a little less seriously from time to time? Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Would I talk to me right now”? Can you pass the “mirror test”?

What do you do to loosen up before entering the arena? How can you get less exclusively from the head and bring more from the heart? What makes you move? What makes you laugh? How can you play more, relax, really enjoy being and engaging the present?

To learn more about the guideposts for wholehearted living, read Brené Brown’s books Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, or come experience them applied in leadership in my Daring Leadership™ retreat May 15-17, 2015, a highly experiential methodology based on the research of Brené Brown to help leaders learn how to show up, be seen, and live braver lives. For more information visit


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