In addition to creating the most effective content and delivery for their learning and development organizations and motivating their direct reports, CLOs might want to encourage leaders to focus on their health. Exercising and paying attention to your health has more benefits than a trim figure and youthful muscle tone. It can also improve the health of the business. According to research conducted as part of Lasting Leadership, the latest executive learning offering from the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College and partner Carillon Executive Health, cognitive performance actually will improve along with a person’s health.
“Cognition is really mental performance,” said Dr. Steven Masley, FAAFP, CNS, medical director for Carillon Executive Health and author of “Ten Years Younger.” “It’s that whole process of how quickly and clearly we think. If we have to gather information, put it together, process it, we need to think and respond, and then hopefully we remember it. There’s more to leadership than just cognition, but if you’re sharp and bright, it gives you a huge advantage.”
Masley said that improved cognition enables you to get more work done in less time, which is critical for learning executives, many of whom work 50 to 60 or more hours a week. Equally interesting, key predictors associated with improving mental performance are also associated with decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“The things that help you today will protect you in the future,” Masley said. “If you’re active more often, you’re less likely to get Alzheimer’s, and from the research I’ve been doing if I can get people to work out at least five days a week for a half hour and get their heart rate up, their cognitive performance improves. They react better to information. They can jump from topic to topic quicker, more precisely and with fewer errors. Two to three days a week did not seem to make a big difference. It was really the almost daily, five to six days a week for 30 minutes that had a significant improvement in increasing cognitive performance, especially reaction time.”
Masley offered a number of strategies to help keep your brain churning out the next big learning and development ideas, including getting adequate amounts of fish oil in your diet. Fish oil naturally comes from eating seafood, but Masley cautions executives to be careful because another health-related item that impacts cognitive performance is mercury toxicity. Mercury also is found in fish. “A third of the people I see have elevated mercury levels,” he said. “They’re eating too much of the wrong type of seafood: big mouth seafood, tuna, grouper, swordfish. There’s a paradox there. We’re asking people to get more fish oil, but if they eat the wrong type they could actually impair themselves. That means they need knowledge because they need to choose well.”
Stress management is another area executives should watch to aid cognitive performance. Masley said that there’s nothing inherently wrong with stress. The body can handle it in the long term, but often the hectic life of a senior-level learning leader means managing high levels of stress in the short term as well, which strains the hippocampus, an area of the brain that produces short-term memory. Executives also should be regularly screened for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
“When executives are eating better, exercising and managing their stress, when they do those three pillars of health, they’re helping their weight, improving cholesterol, blood pressure, etc., but they’re also improving their work performance,” Masley said. “A lot of executives are not willing to take the time off for their health, but they would if they realized their job performance would improve. There’s nothing selfish about going to the gym. Good executive health is good business.”
“I think behavioral health choices and leadership behaviors are so intricately woven together that combining both would be really helpful in terms of helping the executives to make the best choices for themselves and for their organizations,” said Jennifer Hall, director of coaching and feedback for the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College. “Too often executives are under the gun. They’ve got to make quick choices. There’s pressure to deliver results to the stockholders, and as a result sometimes it’s difficult to take a step back, get that long term view and ask, ‘How will how I’m treating this person right now affect their development and performance? How will this affect the climate of my organization?’”
Hall said that a learning executive’s behavior should impact others positively and create the right kind of climate in an organization, one that is positive, motivates and encourages growth and performance. Making the right health choices affects all of that. “Even if an executive is very effective at one point in time, the environment is continually changing and the needs of the people are continually changing,” Hall said. “It’s hard work to always look inside and ask, ‘How is this working right now,’ even if it worked yesterday, and to make the needed adjustments to behavior.”
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