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Stronger, Faster, Smarter: Sustaining Executive Performance

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Steven MacGregor introduces his book, which aims to be a reference for the adoption of new habits and practices that drive health and performance for the experienced manager, and a reflection on practice for management students.
This chapter is from the book
  • In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these means, man can attain perfection.
  • —Plato

The Games of Olympiad V had just finished, and the star competitors were making their way around the stadium during the closing ceremony. The Stockholm crowd roared their appreciation and tried to pick out their heroes. Sixteen days of competition1 had yielded dozens of gold-medal winning performances and new Olympic champions: the faster sprints, the higher and longer jumps, the amazing feats of strength. And of course, who could forget the following from Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach:

  • O Sport, you are Joy! At your behest, flesh dances and eyes smile; blood races abundantly through the arteries. Thoughts stretch out on a brighter, clearer horizon. To the sorrowful you can even bring salutary diversion from their distress, whilst the happy you enable fully to savour their joie de vivre.

The Olympic Gold Medal for Literature. The nine-verse “Ode to Sport” was highly praised by the judging panel: “which without dispute appeared to us to carry away the literature contest, in our eyes has the great merit that it is of the exact type that we sought for the competitions in the matter of inspiration. It emanates as directly as possible from the idea of sport. It praises sport in a form that to the ear is very literary and very sporting.” They went on to say that it was “full of merit everywhere” and “impeccable from the point of view of logic and from the point of view of harmony.” So who were these new Olympic champions? Hohrod and Eschbach were pseudonyms for Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. A small man, athletically fit, always well dressed, with a strong moustache and lively, bright eyes, he was the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time and the driving force of those first Games. We do not know for sure if the judging panel was aware of the real identity of Hohrod and Eschbach, which were actually neighboring villages near the birthplace of de Coubertin’s wife, Marie; neither do we know when or how de Coubertin was presented with his medal. Because these were the first Games of the Olympiad in which arts competitions composed of architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and literature would create new Olympic Champions in addition to the runners, jumpers, and throwers, perhaps de Coubertin was nervous about a low turnout from the arts community. Although the incorporation of the arts was part of his original intention since the first modern Games in 1896, the first two Olympics were merely a matter of survival. He was particularly embarrassed by the Paris Games, his “home” games of 1904, which were overshadowed by the Paris World Fair of the same year. The first major attempt at integrating the arts in the Rome Games of 1908 suffered a false start because of problems encountered by the Rome Committee in staging them, and further, because of the lack of time that their eventual late replacement, London, was afforded. And so to 1912, and 16 years into a still vulnerable Olympic Movement, de Coubertin was not to be denied, not by a deeply reticent Stockholm Committee who believed that art could not be judged in the same way as a running race or jump, nor by the Greek delegation of the day who wanted Athens to be the permanent base of the Games every four years. Perhaps when receiving the news of the medal, yet surely when writing “An Ode to Sport,” de Coubertin would have reflected on the famous Greek artists who won titles in the Ancient Games, through long years of physical training, intellectual debate, and reflection, which marked the gymnasia of the day. Dotted in and around the public libraries and business Agora of Athens and elsewhere, men of all ages would go to train their bodies and their minds. Lectures on philosophy and art would take place in addition to the physical training and competition.

And so he wanted his modern conception of Olympism,2 like the Ancient Greeks who awarded Olympic Champion Laurels for sculpture, music, and literature in addition to feats of strength and physical prowess, to promote a holistic form of human development. His struggle to integrate the arts within the Games was symptomatic of the struggle that de Coubertin had experienced the past 30 years of his life in establishing the modern movement. Like any athlete, his was a long journey of focus, sacrifice, and the quest for progress and achievement. The starting pistol could be viewed as his lecture at the Sorbonne in 1892, in which he made the first public call to reestablish the Olympic Games, a lecture which, on the whole, was received badly, but would only temporarily derail a then-despondent de Coubertin.

In that lecture, Stockholm was presented as a world capital of sport, with the Swedish school of gymnastics together with the German and English models presented as best practices for improving the educational system. Believing sport to be a mechanism by which the world could unite, de Coubertin’s principal aims were peace and education. His strong belief in the power of sport to achieve these and more are reflected in the nine verses of “An Ode to Sport,” in which sport is characterized as “pleasure of the Gods, beauty, justice, audacity, honour, joy, fecundity, progress and peace.” In his writings before and after establishment of the modern movement, de Coubertin’s aim was for Olympism to be “a doctrine of the fraternity of the body and the mind.” His expectation was that sport could reestablish this balance in the younger generation that had been missing for so long, with an educational system he saw plagued by barriers and a complete lack of free thinking. In 1887, when Coubertin was formulating his plans, the word overwork was on every-one’s lips. He believed that permanent and excessive fatigue derived essentially from “physical weakness, intellectual dullness, and moral degradation” and believed that the body, rather than being perceived as inferior to the mind, was actually the means by which the mind could function better. Tracing the loss of this ancient wisdom, he wrote the following:

  • Olympia did not disappear merely from the face of the earth. It disappeared in peoples’ minds. A belief took root, this belief was that the body is the enemy of the spirit, that the struggle between them is an inevitable and normal thing, and that no understanding should be sought out that would allow them to join together in governing the individual.

Athletics was viewed as the means by which this individual “governance” could work—and excel. Defined by de Coubertin as “the voluntary and habitual practice of intense muscular exercise based on a desire for progress and extending as far as will,” it contained at its core five key attributes: initiative, perseverance, intensity, search for perfection, and scorn for potential danger. Coubertin also wrote about the importance of maintaining body-mind balance into adulthood, bemoaning the lack of modern gymnasia and questioning where adults would go to keep themselves in good athletic condition “in the few fleeting moments they might carve out for it in their busy professional schedules.”

Yet although Coubertin was merely reconceptualizing the Ancient Greek virtue of whole person development, where going to the gymnasium was considered a civic duty, such ideas were not readily accepted. Even after the establishment of the International Olympic Committee and several editions of the Games, de Coubertin’s energy was devoted to reenforcing his message. Between 1918 and 1919, he published 21 “Olympic Letters” in La Gazette, the Lausanne newspaper, to try to rouse the sympathies of the readers in support of the Olympics and the work done in Lausanne. One of those letters concerned one of the primary objectives of de Coubertin, that of education, which, in the broader context of lifelong education or human development, is also the core concern of Sustaining Executive Performance. It is reproduced below.

  • Olympic Letter III: Olympism and Education
  • Somewhere, Montaigne wrote that one should imagine the body and the soul as two horses yoked to the same shaft. He hitches them up two at a time. I prefer to hitch them up four at a time, and to distinguish not only the body and the mind, which is too simplistic, but rather the muscles, the understanding, the character, and the conscience. This corresponds to the four-fold duty of the educator. But both cases involve hitching things up, and the major flaw in modern education is that it is no longer conversant with the art of hitching-up, i.e. of associating the action of divergent forces into a harmonious convergence. It has allowed itself to be carried away by extreme compartmentalization, by which it was then swept away. Each strength works in isolation, without any link or contact with its neighbour. If the topic is muscles, the only thing they want to see is animal function. The brain is furnished as though it were made up of tiny, air-tight compartments. Conscience is the exclusive territory of religious training. As for character—no one wants to take responsibility for that. In a short time, the educated man will end up looking like those primitive mosaics in which little pieces formed larger, crude and stiff pictures. What a decline in comparison to Greek education, which was so lucid, its outline so clear!

Let us not try to hide the fact that Olympism is a reaction against those unfortunate tendencies. Olympism refuses to make physical education a purely physiological thing, and to make each type of sport an independent, separate exercise. It refuses to catalogue the knowledge of the mind, and to classify it into mutually isolated categories. Olympism refuses to accept the existence of a deluxe education reserved for the wealthy classes, no shred of which should be handed out to the working classes. It refuses to condense art into pills that everyone will take at set hours and to establish timetables of thought along the lines of railway schedules. Olympism is a destroyer of dividing walls. It calls for air and light for all. It advocates a broad-based athletic education accessible to all, trimmed with manly courage and the spirit of chivalry, blended with aesthetic and literary demonstrations, and serving as an engine for national life and as a basis for civic life. That’s its ideal program. Now can it be achieved?

La Gazette de Lausanne, no. 294, October 26, 1918, p1.

The Ancient Greek Virtue of the Scholar-Athlete

That “clear” and “lucid” Greek education system was driven by the purpose of producing good citizens,3 based on the training of the body through physical exercise, and of the mind (primarily, though not solely) through music. The Olympic Games were the arena in which these virtues were displayed, with such arenas playing witness to the peak of this dialogue between mind and body. Participation rather than victory was the main aim. The Greeks believed that the formation of a strong character demanded the cultivation of the body, and that by cultivating the body in athletic meetings, they broadened and strengthened the mind, thereby creating a complete person. It was such a vision that Coubertin wanted to re-create, primarily for the youth of the modern era. If the Games were the public expression of this whole person, the progress toward it was honed through daily attendance in the Gymnasia of the day. Regarded as civic duty, the great and good of Ancient Greece—writers, politicians, and philosophers, from Socrates to Sophocles, Aristotle, and Pericles—would all have spent regular time doing physical training. The main Gymnasia of the day, the Lyceum and the Academy, were managed by Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s Lysis describes an encounter that Socrates had when making his way from the Lyceum to the Academy, describing his main activity there, not as wrestling but “words, mostly words.” Indeed, the Gymnasia offered respite from the frenzied business of the day that would take place in the Agora or Forum, and where the more important issues of life were addressed, at least for people such as Plato and Aristotle. How can we be good? What makes us fall in love? How do we know what we know?

Plato was also, according to ancient texts, a champion wrestler, gaining honors at the Isthmian Games. This is where his name came from. Called Aristocles after his grandfather, his wrestling coach is said to have called him Plato on account of his broad shoulders—Platon meaning broad in Greek. For Plato, lectures at the Academy on the virtues of physical education were commonplace, and balance between the body and the mind was a critical factor; the goal was to “bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch.”4 Just as much a danger as neglecting the body, focusing only on the body to the detriment of this balance would result in athletes becoming unadaptable and sluggish, “needing too much sleep.”

So what of today? How is the “pitch” between body and mind achieved, particularly for adults in business with those “busy professional schedules” as noted by de Coubertin in the late nineteenth century? The word overwork remains on everyone’s lips with a modern business environment often characterized by poor physical condition and excessive stress.

Why should we care? How may we legitimize the Ancient Greek virtue beyond health and well-being to executive performance? A key inspiration for integrating a more physical approach to management education and development comes from considering Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs5 and realizing that mental performance is often dependent on physical states in the same way that Maslow details the satisfaction of such basic human needs as food, water, and sleep before more advanced functions, such as creativity and problem solving, can be satisfied. Although Maslow’s hierarchy lacks any significant level of scientific support, it was subsequently adapted and empirically supported by Alderfer6 through his ERG (Existence, Relatedness, Growth) model. A critical mass of research to fully legitimize the body-mind link for performance has emerged over the past 10 years, in specialized fields including psychophysiology, which looks closely at the body’s physiological bases and its link with psychological processes, cognitive neuroscience, and biochemistry. Several studies enlighten the real and actionable link between body and mind, particularly as it relates to the modern day executive or knowledge worker, and range from functional needs to performance enhancement.

On a functional level, The New York Times7 reports on varied research that shows the need to periodically “unplug” from digital devices, whereas Sparrow et al.8 show that Google is beginning to change the way we think and act on a fundamental basis. Such mental health issues are complemented by physical health research. In the performance domain, Colcombe and Kramer9 found fitness training to increase cognitive performance, regardless of the type of task, the training method, or the participants’ characteristics. Further, findings in neuroscience10 show a 48-hour oxygen advantage being provided to the brain through exercise that specifically aids executive function—those tasks that include complex decision making and strategic analysis that managers are engaged in regularly. Other research11 shows that exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, critical for memory, effectively reversing aging and further debunking the long-held belief that cognitive decline was irreversible. A groundswell of research is emerging in this area, not for management development specifically, but in the battle against cognitive disease, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which shows the acute link between body and brain. Linking to innovation, Fields12 discusses the significance of studies that show aerobic exercise contributing to the creative process, because the cognitive effects specifically lower fear and anxiety associated with the unknown. Finally, research has focused on the energy requirements of the brain, considering decision fatigue and “ego depletion”—where one is not consciously aware of being tired as with physical fatigue, but where glucose is required for self-control and good decision making.13,14

A critical mass of scientific evidence is therefore beginning to emerge that supports the performance imperative of the ancient Greek virtue that de Coubertin aimed to reintroduce. Behavior is indeed changing in different areas. If Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates could be viewed as the rock stars of the day, looking at the modern equivalent allows us to consider some of the basics.

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