Sustainable Performance: The Corporate Athlete Playbook

In this episode of The Balanced Leader Podcast, we explore the “Corporate Athlete” model which applies training principles from elite athletes to help leaders maintain high performance over the long run without burning out. Just like professional athletes, leaders need to strategically invest in renewing their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy through specific rituals and practices. Too often, leaders neglect self-care and run in a perpetual state of energy depletion, stress and overwhelm. 


The podcast examines the contrasts between how athletes train and recover versus the unsustainable pace of the typical office worker. It details a famous leader’s wake-up call from collapsing due to exhaustion as an example of the need for renewal. 


The core idea is to embrace a realistic, cyclical approach of expenditure followed by strategic recovery, rather than constant overdrive. Specific tips are provided for building a sustainable leadership practice through relaxation, sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and passion rejuvenation. The path to sustainable leadership requires bucking cultural norms around endless productivity in order to show up at your best year after year.


00:07  Welcome to The Balanced Leader Podcast

00:27  Embracing the Corporate Athlete Model for Leadership

01:20  The Stark Contrast: Athletes vs. Office Workers

04:25  Arianna Huffington’s Wake-Up Call to Wellbeing

06:12  Building Sustainable Leadership Practices

Sustainable Performance: The Corporate Athlete Playbook


[00:00:00] This is The Balanced Leader Podcast, the podcast that helps leaders elevate their wellbeing and create healthier workplaces. My name is Rob Hills, and I am your leadership and wellbeing coach. If you’re a leader who feels like you’re constantly running on fumes, battling burnout, and struggling to show up at your best, then this episode is for you.

[00:00:27] Today, we’re taking a page from the playbook of elite athletes and examining how their training principles can help leaders go the distance without crashing and burning. Let’s face it, leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. Just like professional athletes, leaders need to strategically renew their personal energy to ensure high performance over time.

[00:00:52] This is the core idea behind the corporate athlete model I want to talk to you about today. The Corporate Athlete Model was [00:01:00] popularized by leadership experts Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. This model is to take the knowledge and experience of athletes in achieving high performance and then mirror some of those strategies in a corporate environment.

[00:01:14] To help make this metaphor clearer, let’s compare a high performance athlete with your run of the mill office worker. Let’s start with training. Athletes train a couple of times a week, but they generally only perform once a week. The office worker trains once or twice a year, apart from all that mandatory e learning of course.

[00:01:34] but they perform five days a week, sometimes six. Athletes have clearly defined competitive seasons and then off seasons built into their annual calendars that allow for recovery. Office workers typically don’t have off seasons unless you count annual leave, but that’s only usually a couple of weeks.

[00:01:56] Athletes work with coaches, trainers, [00:02:00] nutritionists, physiotherapists, psychologists, and other medical staff to help optimize their training and recovery. Office workers rarely get that level of professional support unless they’re a manager or executive, and that means they usually get access to an executive coach just a couple of times a year.

[00:02:18] Athletes have clear, objective metrics to help them measure progress and performance outputs. For the office worker, performance is more subjective and usually only spoken about formally once or twice a year in the annual performance review. Athletes follow proven recovery regimes like ice baths, compression sleeves, physical therapy, and strictly managed sleep schedules and diets.

[00:02:45] The office worker typically doesn’t have such recovery practices, unless you count driving home in peak hour traffic to pick up the kids, shuttling them to their after school activities, Getting home at some ungodly hour just to make them dinner and get the kids to bed. If they’re [00:03:00] lucky, they might get to binge watch a few of their favorite shows on Netflix before flopping in bed for a few hours of fitful sleep and then waking up and doing it all again.

[00:03:09] It really doesn’t sound that great, does it? So which do you think leads itself more to peak performance? They almost sound like polar opposites to me. The corporate athlete mindset recognizes that leaders are human beings. not robots. We can’t just work harder and longer indefinitely without paying a price.

[00:03:30] Like athletes, we need to actively invest in our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy through specific rituals and disciplines. The unfortunate reality is that many leaders neglect their self care completely, running in a perpetual state of energy depletion, stress, and anxiety. and overwhelm.

[00:03:49] It sometimes starts with skipping workouts or poor sleep. Then the unhealthy eating habits creep in and the meditation practice fall by the wayside. And I’m not judging here, [00:04:00] because I too have had periods in my life where work has overrun my personal life, and all of my well being practices seem to have just gone out the window.

[00:04:08] When you find yourself in this spiral, before you know it, you’re burned out, disengaged, and even making poor decisions. In this state, You certainly can’t lead at your highest level or inspire others to give their best. Sustainable leadership requires a different approach. Here’s an example of someone who nowadays is really quite well known for her well being practices, but as you’ll see, it certainly wasn’t always that way.

[00:04:34] In the mid 2000s, Arianna Huffington was a woman obsessed. She had launched a digital media platform, The Huffington Post, and was laser focused on growing it into a major news outlet. Huffington embodied the classic burnout prone leader persona. She ran herself ragged, fueled by ambition and the potential of disrupting the publishing world.

[00:04:58] Her typical day started before [00:05:00] dawn, and it didn’t stop until very late at night. She was constantly on the road, spreading herself even thinner. Huffington’s inner circle tried to rein her in at times, They express concerns about her manic pace and her complete disregard for work life balance. But she just waved them off, insisting she’d sleep once she achieved her vision.

[00:05:22] In April 2007, Arianna’s wake up call arrived in a shocking way. She collapsed from utter exhaustion. and found herself on the floor in a pool of blood next to her office desk. She had fallen and smashed her head, breaking her cheekbone, which required four stitches near her eye. This incident forced Arianna to face some hard truths about her unsustainable lifestyle.

[00:05:47] Despite her success, Arianna She was running on empty and it was putting everything, including her health and life at risk. From that point on, Arianna began radically re evaluating her priorities. [00:06:00] She finally understood that high performance still requires self care and renewal. And this laid the groundwork for her to become a leading voice in the wellbeing at work philosophy.

[00:06:12] So what can we, the aspiring corporate athlete, do to build rhythms and rituals into our life that supports sustainable leadership? It’s basically what we talk about with our amazing guests each episode on this podcast. It’s dedicating time for relaxation and disengagement. It’s getting seven to eight hours of sleep through good sleep hygiene.

[00:06:35] It’s moving our bodies through exercise like yoga, weights, walking, whatever. It’s eating nutritious, energy sustaining foods, and not reaching for the easiest thing we can find in the pantry. It’s practicing mindfulness, meditation, or prayer. It’s prioritizing the things that reef your passion and purpose in you.

[00:06:56] It’s recognizing that we’ve been through a peak busy time. and then [00:07:00] allowing ourselves the time to renew. The core idea here is to embrace a realistic, cyclical approach to expenditure of energy, and then the renewal of it, rather than that all out overdrive that leaves leaders running on empty. Now I get it.

[00:07:17] There are going to be periods where you are going to have to push hard to achieve the task or objective. That’s okay, but you can’t maintain that pace all the time. There has to be peaks and troughs, ebbs and flows. After a period of busyness, there needs to be a period of renewal. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

[00:07:38] The path to sustainable leadership is a courageous one that requires bucking cultural norms around constant productivity. But as we’ve explored, giving yourself permission to truly renew and refuel is exactly what enables you to show up at your best year after year. So what are you going to do to build your own sustainable leadership practice and become [00:08:00] a corporate athlete?

[00:08:02] I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. This model has had a profound impact on me when I heard about it many years ago, so I hope it has the same impact on your well being. Enjoy the rest of your day and I look forward to speaking with you next time.