Pushing Through Your Limits

By Tim Winstone

Jun 02

I’ve always thought that if I had lived in a different time, I would’ve been an explorer that constantly sought new adventures and opportunities. I have such a passion for adventure sports which involves pushing yourself to your absolute limits and beyond what you think is possible. 

Human beings are an amazing species, and our ability to push beyond what we think and believe is possible is one of the many attributes that have allowed us to survive and evolve.  Part of the reason I love adventure is that it takes you to new places, allows you to engage in new experiences and tests your physical and mental limits, all while in the company of other like-minded adventure seekers.

I have often reflected on parallels between taking part in high intensity adventure sport and leadership development. In particular there are similarities to the field Vertical Leadership Development, which is ultimately about expanding a person’s capacity to lead. Nick Petrie, the world leading researcher in Vertical Leadership Development describes three core elements to create an environment for vertical development to thrive; 

  1. Entering the ‘Heat Zone’
  2. Obtaining ‘Colliding Perspectives’ and 
  3. Practicing ‘Reflection’. 

The combination of these three conditions enable leaders to grow their capacity to lead and take on new experiences (adventures).

What can we then learn from endurance sports and activities that can be applied to leadership?

A book that captivated me recently was ‘Endure’ by Alex Hutchinson. It explores the world of endurance sports and the different elements that enable humans to reach limits no-one thought possible. The book considers whether an individual’s physical limits are set by their body or their brain, or a combination of both. What controls our ability to endure through elements such as: heat, thirst, oxygen deprivation or pain? Is it our physical limitations as humans, or does our brain play a key role in protecting us from harm? 

Through his research, Hutchinson finds that in many cases our brain will set ‘alerts’ before we can cause physical harm. However it is possible to push through our limits to achieve what we think is unachievable. Endurance athletes constantly balance the risks of pushing on in their sport even when the brain is signalling to stop. These athletes have the ability to reset what their limits are – but can be very costly if pushed too far.

So, can we push beyond perceived limits in our leadership? Can we extend beyond what our brain says we are comfortable with and reset the limits of what’s possible? Those who climb Mt Everest, don’t attempt to push past their physical limits (oxygen deprivation) and head straight to the top – They acclimatise and set new limits as to what their body can sustain.   

As you work towards a new goal, break it down into achievable stretches that enter the ‘heat zone’, but ensure that you come back to within your limits. Reflect, gain perspective and then you can push further.   Building such a mindset as habit will allow you to challenge and extend your leadership capacity. Just like physical endurance, you need to be mindful of what physical limits exist – these are the ones that you don’t want to exceed.

If you want to find out more on this topic, I recommend reading ‘Endure’ by Alex Hutchinson, ISBN: 9780062499981

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