Physical Side of Great CEOs – Zen Leadership
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Physical Side of Great CEOs

Summer, 2017

The Physical Side of Great CEOs

As I often teach leaders, when we tune our perceptive filters to notice certain things, those things just seem to pop out all over. I have to own up to my own perceptive filters being well-tuned to see examples of the FEBI energy patterns at work. No surprise, then, that when I read the May-June Harvard Business Review cover story on what Great CEO’s Do Differently, the patterns jumped out at me again. Based on a 10-year study of nearly 1000 CEO’s from virtually all industry sectors, here are the 4 behaviors that set the most successful CEO’s apart, annotated through a pattern lens: (1) deciding with speed and conviction (Driver), (2) engaging stakeholders (Collaborator), (3) adapting proactively (Visionary), and (4) delivering reliably (Organizer).

So, what does this study add to our understanding of the energy patterns and what do the energy patterns add to this study? To the first question, I appreciate how this study teases out the subset of behaviors in each pattern that are most critical to CEO success, while at the same time demonstrating that all 4 are required. For example, the Driver’s speedy decisiveness is important, but not speed per se.  The Visionary’s adaptiveness is critical, but not necessarily their imagination or future-orientation. On the Organizer side, we see that reliable delivery is crucial, and the authors point out how a whopping 94% of the successful CEO’s in their study were strong in follow-through. But other Organizer behaviors, such as project planning or process orientation are not as important. And the Collaborator’s ability to engage stands out, but not necessarily their orientation to fun or teamwork.

As for what the energy patterns add to this study, the answer is simple: a way to action it. The patterns give leaders a way to self-regulate their behaviors and authentically bring out the critical behaviors not just associated with their strongest patterns, but the critical behaviors from their weaker patterns as well. The authors make the point that it’s rare for successful leaders to excel at all 4 behaviors, however they found that about half of the strongest CEOs did distinguish themselves in at least two of the behaviors, which would likely correspond in FEBI-speak to behaviors associated with their primary style (i.e., combination of their two strongest patterns). But the authors also concluded that “when leaders who aspire to the CEO’s office…deliberately develop [all 4] behaviors, they dramatically raise the odds that they’ll become high-performing chief executives.” So, for example, if an aspiring CEO is already strong in Driver, Organizer and Visionary energies, but weaker in Collaborator, it’s a good bet that impactful engagement is likely to be their weakest of the 4 essential behaviors.  Intentionally cultivating Collaborator energy will help them engage in a way that truly brings others along.

Another contribution the energy patterns make to this HBR study is a reminder that behaviors emerge from the leader as a whole person – mind, body and emotions functioning together. Behaviors don’t just pop out of thin air or get manufactured on the surface. The authors speak to the importance facial expressions and body language in CEO communication, and how the effects of even subtle gestures get magnified in the organization. They also argue that composure is a job requirement; more than 75% of the strong CEOs in their sample were calm under pressure. While the authors would acknowledge such qualities as positive body language or being calm under pressure involve the physical body, they don’t leverage this connection.  What we know from FEBI or, for that matter, Zen training, martial arts or a whole host of physical activities, is that by working with the body in specific ways, such desirable qualities or behaviors can be trained and self-cultivated.

If you’re an aspiring CEO, a coach to aspiring CEOs, or just want to be successful from wherever you lead, and this way of developing through the body and energy intrigues you, some of the upcoming opportunities to experience this approach follow, or contact us with your request.

-Ginny Whitelaw

FEBI Certified For coaches and learning professionals: FEBI certification. Summer is a great time to get FEBI certified.  Things tend to slow down a bit and you can go at your own pace through this e-learning program. FEBI provides you with a structured process to help move and grow leaders in those key areas discussed above. Discover what energy agility and working with the body can do for you and your clients. Get started at

Institute for Zen Leadership: energy patterns and physical training are core to our approach to helping leaders become more resilient, agile, centered and successful. Upcoming programs include:

ASIA:  Contact: for information and registration for these programs in Vietnam

• July 22-23, Zen Leadership 1 – Transforming Self, Transforming Challenges, Hanoi, Vietnam

• July 27-28, Zen Leadership 1 – Transforming Self, Transforming Challenges, HCMC, Vietnam

• July 29-30, Zen Leadership 2 – Leading Fearlessly, Transforming Relationships, HCMC, Vietnam

US: Zen Leadership 2 – Leading Fearlessly, Transforming Relationships (for graduates of foundational program or equivalent experience)

• September 7-10, 2017 (almost full)

• February 22-25, 2018

Zen Leadership 1 – Transforming Self, Transforming Challenges April 19-22, 2018

For Physicians and Healthcare Leaders: HEAL: Healthy Embodied Agile Leadership, Oct 26-29, 2017 at the Spring Green Dojo, WI, taught by a team of physician leaders, Zen teachers and leadership experts. Qualifies for CME.


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