The Unheralded Virtue: Stamina, Part 1

Napoleon Crossing the Alps"The first virtue in a soldier is endurance of fatigue; courage is only the second virtue." 

Napoleon Bonaparte

If you look closely at CEO’s, generals, politicians, and other high-speed leaders one thing that jumps out is that they all have tremendous stamina. Physical stamina. I'd assert that stamina correlates more closely with performance at this level than does intelligence, education, family background, or any other factor. 

Why does stamina correlate to performance? To one extent, it's basic math. Someone with the endurance to work 12, 15, 18-hour days has an enormous advantage. They're getting in twice as much work time.  

It's more than that though. Physical discipline enables mental discipline. When you work that long and hard, you invariably tackle tasks when you're feeling – mentally, emotionally, physically – below par.  It's easy to crank through a document in the morning when you're rested and even jazzed up on a pleasant caffeine jolt.  It's easy to have a good meeting when you're confident and loose and in good spirits. 

Try it when you're tired. And, invariably, those key moments come when you're tired. Cramming for a big proposal. Handling a crisis with a customer. Business travel. (Are you ever rested on a business trip?) Think of those late-night sessions and what happens. People get punchy, or silly and distracted. They get irritable, maybe even lash out. Or they start rationalizing “What’s the big deal if we don’t do it perfectly?” 

Someone who's able to keep it together under stress – just when others fade – is invaluable. And again, such moments are typically the "moments-of-truth" on the work agenda. Discipline matters. In fact, the high-performers have not just the ability to focus in those moments; in a perverse way, they almost thrive on it.  

Finally, consider the edge in self-development. By definition, getting out of your comfort zone means stress and uncertainty. Nowadays, many of us can only be dragged out of our comfort zones with the crutch of $75 per hour personal trainers. If then. If you have the discipline to tackle it yourself, to weave self-improvement efforts into your routine, you have a decided edge. If you thrive on pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you're in the bonus.  

Recently, I was on a webinar where I had to speak for some 40-45 minutes. Uninterrupted, no breaks.  Straight monologue.  (Trust me, this format was definitely not my choice.  It was by request.)  By the end I was exhausted--physically and mentally drained.  Unfortunately, however, I had 15 minutes or so of Q&A remaining.   Truthfully, I couldn't even really tell you what was asked and how I responded.  Some mumbling ramble I imagine. I'm sure it wasn't pretty. Fortunately, the setting was friendly: the questions weren't tough; and by then the participants were probably ready to move along.  But, the point is the questions indeed could have been tough!  In fact, a Q&A session like that is often a critical component in your public relations effort, right?  A chance to shine or drown.  Admittedly, I was not in shape to handle what could've been a moment-of-truth very well.  Had there been any current (to stay with this awkward analogy), I surely would've drowned.  

Stamina's Important ...So Now What?

Like anything else, stamina is built. Part of it's sheerly physical, part is habit. In truth, if you're mid-career, flabby habits can be tough to overcome. As with working-out or diet, those who've built the habit from a young age are going to have an edge. It's hard to go your whole life eating donuts and then leave the couch to train for a triathlon. But, couch potatoes can and do go on to run triathlons. In turn, you can learn the ability to stay on task – physically and mentally – at work. 

Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion (great book, by the way) talks about classroom exercises his teachers use to help students build a form of writing-endurance. Basically, they start by having the students write – steadily, without pause – for short periods of time, and then gradually increase these periods until the students can learn to focus for longer stretches. They build stamina in thinking and writing, just as they'd build stamina in swimming or jogging. And, it seems the approach works and the pay-off in student performance is worthwhile.  

There's no reason we can't do the same thing with oral communication skills.  In fact, with today's tools (like ours!) it's even easier than writing. Through a progressive series of speak-aloud exercises we can build up our stamina reasonably quickly.*  [footnote: In fact, our disfluency program is rooted in the very concept of constructing the habit of correct speech through progressively longer speaking exercises.] 

Open questions are 1) the relationship between stamina and motivation (I suspect strong), and 2) the transferrablity of stamina to other domains.  For example if someone has the ability to stay up all night  practicing piano, would they also have the same stamina in, say, studying a foreign language?  (I suspect this link would actually be weak.)

In any case, as a general topic, it's worth exploring.  When you consider that since most of us can get anxious in professional communications events, and that anxiety exacerbates the fatigue, the need for stamina is even more critical. For many, interviews, presentations, panel discussions, can be draining events. The ability to speak coherently for those stretches at a time is a valuable skill.  

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