Engaging the Moment Makes Better Leaders

Eugenie Bouchard playing tennis

When looking back for valuable lessons offered by the year 2014, a good place to start is the performance of Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon. After all, while Bouchard didn’t win her final match, she still served up lessons worth noting by everyone, especially leaders.

Leaders can learn a lot from athletes like Bouchard, who had long dreamed of stepping onto centre court at the “cathedral of tennis” for her first Grand Slam. Before the final, she said: “I just want to be able to handle the moment.” When it comes to Bouchard’s success as a tennis player, the ability to engage the moment is a skill every bit as important as her serve. And the same things that challenge an athlete’s ability to engage the moment can subvert the focus of leaders.

As Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl noted, the space between stimulus and response creates an opportunity to engage the moment in a way that can be transformative. But doing this is extremely difficult because attention on the task at hand can be drawn away by past experiences, not to mention expectations for the future.

Like athletes, leaders need to reflect on the past and plan for the future, but both need to bring the best of themselves when facing the present. The ability to do this is developed over time and anchored in competence, character and commitment, which are only developed in everyday moments.

Competencies are what a person can do and commitment is the effort someone will put into doing it, while character influences the choices people make as they attempt to achieve goals (including whether they will acquire the requisite competencies and make the required commitment). All are necessary and work together to deliver short- and long-term performance, which is realized through the present and the string of present moments. Indeed, for great athletes, the ability to engage the moment isn’t reserved for grand competitive occasions. It is a habit. Being fully present during everyday moments provides the foundation and focus for tackling the big moments.

Immersing yourself in the moment requires heightened awareness. It is also essential to quiet what can be a judgmental and dysfunctional mind. Stressful moments activate the fight/flight response, releasing adrenaline and distracting thoughts. To maintain focus, top athletes rely on breathing techniques to maintain control. Leaders can do the same thing to engage present moments, particularly stressful ones, in productive ways.

While having expectations to achieve, great athletes and leaders alike understand that fear of failure is a distraction that can cripple performance, which is why they learn to focus on process rather than outcome. They teach themselves to be comfortable with the unknown. Instead of fearing the feeling of not knowing, some even learn to enjoy it.

A common saying in the military is that soldiers will “rise to the lowest level of training they have achieved.” The same is true of athletes and leaders. It is easy to get rattled under pressure, but trusting one’s preparation helps to ensure commitment to the moment. Athletes rely on well-established routines that they can trust under pressure. The equivalent for leaders is developing the character, competencies and commitment that provide both the confidence to trust in them, and the depth to ensure that they do not crack under pressure.

It was not a fairy-tale ending for Bouchard at Wimbledon. She was dominated by Petra Kvitová in her final match, which has been called the most lopsided women’s championship in 22 years. Bouchard engaged the moment and executed on all of the things that had gotten her to this point in her spectacular career. But character and commitment are not enough when facing someone with the same or superior competencies. As commentators noted, Bouchard was “outplayed, outclassed by a bigger, stronger opponent.” Yet, there was nothing but praise for Bouchard, who was described as “poised beyond her years.” All expectations are that her character and commitment will enable her to develop the full set of competencies to be a Wimbledon champion.

“It is a tough road to become as good as I want to be,” Bouchard told reporters after the match. “It was a big moment walking out on the centre court for the final…. I hope I can walk out to many more.” When asked if losing the final was a gut-wrenching experience, she simply replied, “If I try my best, it is all I can do.”

Bouchard has learned to be gentle with herself while driving for excellence, which is why she still resists the temptation to be distracted from the task at hand. We can all learn from her ability to live up to the Kipling quote portrayed prominently at Wimbledon: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

About the Author

Mary Crossan is a Professor of Strategic Management at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She can be reached at mcrossan@ivey.uwo.ca.

About the Author

Corey Crossan is Assistant Coach of Women’s Golf at Eastern Michigan University.