Adrenalin-energy, a long-term risk for executives?

It’s 8pm, you take another expresso, your heart rate increases, you tense your shoulders and you are ready for a few more hours of work to finish that client proposal…

One thing that we often observe in senior executives is a habit of using adrenalin-based energy to drive results. Also when stepping into corporate offices, we often sense a collective adrenalin ‘vibe’ that is present. It’s almost like the office is ‘buzzing’.

Although adrenalin is a powerful source of energy, it can be destructive in the long-term if used as a consistent fuel for action.

Adrenalin is produced by both the adrenal glands and certain neurons. It plays an important role in the fight-or-flight response by increasing blood flow to muscles, output of the heart, pupil dilation, and blood sugar. All very much needed when we face a tiger in the forest or face a life-threatening accident.

In those cases, adrenalin actually provides a powerful source of energy when we need it. It fuels our action. Adrenalin was designed for such exceptions where fight-flight responses are needed.

The problem is that a large part of the executives we work with use adrenalin on a continuous basis. And many use this same kind of energy to motivate their direct reports and wider teams.

Eventually, most of these leaders, and especially their bodies, hit a wall. Normally it results in a combination of physical and emotional symptoms that keep coming back if the leader doesn’t learn how to engage with work and achieve results in a different way. It’s because our bodies are not made to use adrenalin 50-80 hours a week.

So what’s the alternative? Use different sources of energy when possible.

I learned this the hard way in my life beyond work.

Besides coaching, I practice a lot of extreme sports, such as rock-climbing, slacklining (at height), freediving and high-altitude trekking. I learned a lot about when to use adrenalin energy and when it defeats the eventual purpose of my endeavor.

Adrenalin has served me well when rock-climbing. Especially when I am on a challenging project and need to ‘clip the next bolt’ while my forearms can’t hold on anymore (you climbers know what I am talking about…..)

In that moment, somehow my body throws in some adrenalin to grab the next piece of rock, clip the bolt and put myself to safety. I am always amazed where these ‘reserves’ come from. In those moments adrenalin prevents me from falling 5 meters (depending on where I clipped my last bolt….).

However, in the situations where I need to reach a longer-term goal than ‘clipping the next bolt’, adrenalin has been incredibly counter-productive.

My best example is from a few years ago. My wife and I quit our jobs to walk for 5 months the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) in Nepal. We trekked for 97 days over the world’s highest peaks climbing more than 62,000 vertical meters (and down again!) and spent weeks above 4,000 meters.

In the early weeks, I would face one of these never-ending steep Nepali climbs and ‘got ready for battle’. I would use a combination of adrenalin energy with a strong desire (or attachment?) to reach my outcome. In the Himalayas, this outcome most of the time means getting to the top of a mountain pass.

Although I was in really good shape, I realized that I got exhausted before I knew. After a few days of very tiring ascents, I changed my strategy. I focused on the next step, only looked up once when starting the climb and threw in the mindfulness techniques that I used before on a cushion. I tried to find an inner calm and breathing rhythm while progressing gradually towards my goal. Before I know I have arrived. Watch any local Sherpa and you know what I mean.

The results were stunning. Basically we could keep on going without exhaustion. I had periods where I trekked more than 60 days in a row without a single rest day. As long as I kept my rhythm and took care of our ‘four magic rules’ (i.e. sleep well, eat well, respect my body, respect the mountain), I felt I could continue this for years if needed.

As executives, we can use similar energy sources in our day-to-day work. We can set our target and then focus on doing the best we can in-the-moment using a more steady, sustainable source of energy.

Yes, I admit: environment plays a big role. it’s easier to find a sustainable, calm energy source when you have a Mt Everest mountain view around you instead of a hectic trading floor with 2 smartphones ringing and a boss yelling for KPIs….

But still, I invite you to reflect on what energy you normally use to get you (and your team) through your day to achieve results?

Does that energy feel contracted, adrenalin-fueled and attached to an outcome? Or is it more expanded, focused on the action in the moment and contains a quality of ease and lightness?

And sometimes you might choose to use adrenalin when needed. Use it by exception to get the whole team pumped up and get the project done before the deadline. But then choose it consciously because you need to ‘clip the next bolt’, instead of using it because you have no other alternatives.

Mindful regards,

Gaston Schmitz
Consultant at the Asian Leadership Institute Consultancy