Do you Sink, Float, or Swim?

by Scott Peltin

Too often we seem to find ourselves reading about the epidemic of executive burnout. It’s a popular topic: it raises eyebrows, and sounds alarm bells. In my previous life as a firefighter and fire brigade leader, I was all too aware of the news value of a raging fire. Now, after 10 years of working with top executives, leaders, professional athletes, and even special forces soldiers, I realise that burnout is only a small part of the story.

You could put most corporate executives on a performance continuum. On the far left is a group that is in a crisis, or near a crisis, working as hard as they can but gasping for air. They often have lost hope because they don’t have any strategies to improve their situation. We call this group ‘sinkers’ and in our research*, they represent approximately 14% of the executives we have seen.

On the far right of this performance continuum is a fiercely impressive group of executives that not only have energy, they energise others. They are focused, fully present/engaged, inspiring, resilient and in control. They aren’t this way by chance or luck, they employ strategies every day to be this way. And they aren’t just this way at work, they give off the same energy at home. We call this group ‘swimmers’ and they represented only 5% of the executives we have seen.

In the middle of this performance continuum is the largest group of executives (approximately 81%), the ‘floaters’ toiling to keep their head above water. They are just trying to make it through today, this week, or this quarter. We call them “comfortably numb” (borrowed from the Pink Floyd) because they have accepted their situation as just the way it is, and will always be. Sinkers too often miss even the simplest of choices they face, which could help them swim because they are fearful they will take too much energy or time (even though they rarely do).

Often, the causes of sinking or floating (similar to burnout) are attributed to common culprits like long working hours, too many corporate change initiatives, or just too many meetings. Without a doubt, they all contribute to sinking or floating, but only partially. I’d call them external performance killers and largely they are out of your control.

Swimmers are unique. They’re aware of these external performance killers but they choose not to allow them to pull them under the water. Instead, they employ a series of choices that help them achieve some degree of sustainable high performance.

Sustainable high performance is a condition that occurs when a person is stretched beyond her/his comfort zone but not beyond her/his skill level. It is a condition of high energy and passion, low anxiety, and maximum productivity. It’s not a one-time experience but rather a normal state where mediocrity is unacceptable but perfection is not the objective. It’s a condition that yields high motivation, strong self-esteem, excitement to handle challenges, and abundant physical energy. Sustainable high performance is an outcome of excellent habits. It is a process and not a destination.

Recently, I was working with John Reid-Dodick, Chief People Officer of Dun and Bradstreet. He shared with his team members that his biggest desire is to be a swimmer. He shared the more predictable professional and business benefits, but it was his description of the personal benefits he receives by ‘swimming’ that resonated significantly with the group. He described with conviction the power of bringing energy home at the end of a busy day, fully engaging with his family, and using his mental agility to help those most dearest to him be their best.

His morning starts with hydrating, doing some energising movement, and eating a high performance breakfast. He spends a few minutes identifying his key events, sets some clear intentions for these events, and mentally visualises his day. He sees where he will take quick little recovery breaks, how he will eat strategic snacks and use movement to keep his brain sharp, and how he will reflect between meetings to check in with himself.

From the outside it would be easy to think he must be some super-machine who has 26 hours a day instead of the 24 you have. You may assume he has fewer meetings, a half empty agenda, or that he genetically was given some well of energy you didn’t receive. You’d be wrong. John simply acknowledges that every day he has over 1,000 simple choices about his mindset, nutritional habits, movement and even ‘recovery’. Every choice either moves him along the performance continuum to either being a swimmer or a sinker. John isn’t an aberration, he just chooses to take a more strategic approach than most to achieving some degree of sustainable high performance.

Where do you think you are along the performance continuum? Is this where you want to be? What is your next choice?

*Tignum research and diagnostic testing with 2,000 leaders. Two-thirds had impaired metabolic function, which decreases energy and contributes to brain fog.


Scott Peltin is co-author of ‘Sink, Float or Swim’ and chief performance officer at Tignum, an international consultancy that helps leaders work at their full potential. Prior to co-founding the firm in 2005 with Jogi Rippel, he held leading positions in the US fire service for 25 years. www.tignum.com

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