A few years back my business partner and I wrote “In the Zone with South Africa’s Sports Heroes”, delving into the minds of world-class sportsmen and women. We interviewed several South African sports superstars because we wanted to fully understand the mental skills and strategies they used to perform at their best. 

It was clear that these elite sportspeople possessed more than a certain list of skills and qualities. We observed an underlying structure, order and often progression. These top athletes had certain base skills on which other skills were built over time. While researching the book we developed The Zoning Pyramid. This high-performance pyramid for mental development has been implemented by many sports coaches and teams to help them achieve success. During our work with Cricket South Africa, for instance, we trained coaches on how to identify and build these traits in young players.

Like athletes, business leaders are under immense pressure to perform. They too need certain base skills or strategies in place to be successful and can ultimately reach peak performance by developing and building on these skills. 

During my 20 years as an executive coach, I’ve come across many business leaders who lack these foundational pieces and you don’t need to be an expert to identify the senior government officials who do not have the base skills needed for their positions. These leaders are called situational leaders. When things are good and stress levels are low situational leaders cope well enough. However, as soon as they face pressure or temptation and find themselves outside their comfort zone, they make poor choices, often with devastating results.

Research and experience show that base skills are critical for building and developing leaders that are effective, ethical and leave their positions better than they found them. As coaches, trainers and people in leadership development, we need to be sure we are building on a solid foundation before we begin piling leadership skills onto people.

Questions to ask include:

–       Are we selecting the right people for leadership development? 

–       Are we sending people into purely skills-based leadership training? 

–       Do our corporate development policies consider the fundamental skills and emotional readiness of individuals?  

People often receive training on how to communicate better, make better decisions and manage meetings under the banner of leadership development. When these ‘leaders’ prove themselves to be corrupt, racist, misogynistic, self-serving or just weak under pressure, the organisation can’t understand what went wrong. 

The Zoning Pyramid clearly defines the base skills required:

1)    Healthy self-esteem 

Self-esteem is the sum total of your personal judgements on which you base your value and is independent of external factors and/or results. (Self-esteem is not the same as self-confidence and self-efficacy.) People with healthy self-esteem take risks and can bounce back should they fail. They value feedback and allow others to be better than them. Self-esteem can be measured and developed. 

2)    Having and creating high intentions or meaning

The second trait at the base of the pyramid is about the big ‘why?’ It’s the answer to the question – why am I doing this? You don’t need to look far to see the impact of low-level intentions; they manifest as greed, arrogance, selfishness and pettiness. “I am doing it for me and my security.” There is a direct link between how much meaning we create in what we do and the skill and motivation to carry it out. Big meanings unlock big performance. 

3)    Balancing self and others in a healthy way 

Being able to balance your own needs and desires with those of others (family, clients, colleagues) is a crucial base skill. It means you can manage the tension of different needs and still act with decisiveness. Leaders who lack this skill are often either people pleasers or arrogant, selfish and closed-minded.  

A strong foundation leads to strong structures. How would you measure your leadership development? Are you spending your time and effort on the right people? The future of your organisation might depend on it.