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Leading Well: Enhancing Leadership Through Wellness

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Healthy leaders lead better. They make better decisions that lead to improved outcomes and wide-ranging benefits that extend to their teams and organizations. This aspect of leadership is often overlooked. Few professional development programs integrate the principles underlying healthy behaviors into their design.

This concept is not about increasing the use or number of corporate wellness programs. Rather, it’s about how we can enhance our own performance and learning by understanding the science and physiology underpinning wellness practices. And, as an L&D professional, it’s about designing interventions and supporting your organization’s leaders to ensure they are operating at peak performance.

We can look at three key ideas as the foundation of leading well.

Concept 1: Training Enhances More Than Our Muscles

In Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little Brown, 2008), author John Ratey, MD, shows how aerobic exercise remodels our brains for peak performance and improved memory. From the Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of the Corporate Athlete,” we know that leaders must think about their own work performance just like elite athletes—leveraging interval training for their most important “competitions,” then giving themselves time to physically and mentally recover and recharge.

We also know that learning happens best when the learner is active and engaged but not overstimulated, challenged but not frustrated. It’s a fine line we must walk in designing learning interventions—especially for overwhelmed and easily distracted leaders.

Concept 2: Timing Is Everything

There is, in fact, a best time to do everything. Author Daniel Pink argues that timing is a science in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (Riverhead, 2018). We can use his research on timing and what we know about brain activity to work smarter. It is possible to structure our day around when our brains function their best for various activities, from exercising to holding a meeting to doing creative work.


Yet not everyone’s inner body clock is the same. Sleep differences, scientifically known as chronotypes, are genetically wired. Early risers, so-called “larks,” are wired differently than night owls. Leaders need to know their (and their team members’) chronotypes, and we need to make sure to accommodate different chronotypes when designing learning interventions.

If we can identify our team larks and owls, we can boost performance and improve communication and collaboration. We can also schedule learning activities so that each learner gets the maximum value out of it. Case study discussions, small group assignments, readings, and other prework all can be mapped out to help ensure maximum engagement.

Concept 3: We Don’t Rise to the Occasion

That’s right, this is a myth. Rather than rising to the occasion, under times of stress or even duress, we fall to our base instincts and our highest level of training. The technical term for this is amygdala hijack, but you might know it better as “fight or flight”. It is why training is such a critical part of dangerous professions like the military and first responders. Even if a leader doesn’t operate in a life-or-death role, stress and duress are unavoidable, and preparing for those situations dramatically improves outcomes.


Just like soldiers and paramedics, we can ask leaders to prepare for high-stakes situations by putting them into an immersive simulation that is close to the real thing and asking them to perform. By training their brains to work at a level above its natural fight-or-flight tendencies, leaders will be able to perform at their best under pressure.

What It All Means

If we are to help our leaders perform at high levels over the long haul, we need to equip them to avoid burnout and thrive under stressful conditions. We can look through the lens of wellness to diagnose their behaviors and help them form effective habits to improve leadership performance.

Want to learn more? Join us at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition. During our session, "Leading Well: How Wellness Efforts Can Enhance Your Leadership Development Initiatives," we will explore the medical science behind optimizing learning and forming effective habits to improve leadership performance. You’ll gain insights into how to integrate these approaches into leadership development programs, equipping leaders to avoid burnout and thrive under stressful conditions.

About the Author

Josh Brand is senior director of global delivery and is responsible for the delivery of Harvard Business Publishing’s Solutions for clients around the globe. Josh has more than 15 years of executive education and management consulting experience and has built management education programs for clients around the world. Josh was a senior member of the Babson Executive Education team, focusing on designing and delivering customized executive education programs. Before that, he spent over a decade as a management consultant, focusing on helping global companies formulate strategy.

About the Author

Associate Professor and Dean for External Education, Harvard Medical School Dr. David Roberts is a pulmonologist and medical educator who has been teaching patients, medical students, residents, fellows and faculty at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts for the past twenty years. As Dean for External Education at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Roberts is currently developing innovative educational programs for learners across the globe. These include online, in-person, and blended programs for healthcare professionals & scientists; industry executives; pre-health career learners; and patients, families, and content providers. He has served on national education committees and as an editor for the education sections of medical journals.

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