What My Fitness Journey Taught Me About Leadership - Part 1

A few years ago I decided it was time to get serious about fitness and my overall health. Stress, poor diet, and lack of physical activity had led me to a point where I was struggling with low energy and battling with fatigue. I decided to embark on a lifestyle change and get serious about my health and fitness. What I did not know when I started this journey was that many of the lessons I learned along the way would translate to several other areas of my life. One of the most significant parallels I found was between fitness and leadership.

Recently, I began to reflect upon the lessons I learned about fitness and what they have taught me about leadership. While I am certainly not a fitness guru, I have learned what works best for me and what does not through trial and error. 

Many of us know what it is like to start a workout routine, work hard at the gym (or wherever you get your exercise), only to come home and look in the mirror and not see any difference. I’m sure more people would be more inspired to workout if the results were immediately noticeable. Unfortunately for us, it can take weeks to start seeing outward results. Leadership is the same way. We can decide to become better leaders and take the steps necessary to do so only to get discouraged when we do not see immediate results. When this happens, it does not mean that things are not changing; it simply means the outward results of the change have not been manifest yet. We are developing patterns, habits, and routines that will pay dividends later on. 

While my fitness routine has consisted of weight training and various cardio methods, this still applies to many other forms of exercise as well. Here are seven lessons that I learned about leadership as a result of my fitness journey:

1. Beware of “fads” and focus on what is proven to work

Diet plans, weight loss products, and the fitness industry are expected to be a $70 Billion industry in 2019. While the weight loss industry continues to grow year-over-year America’s obesity rate continues to increase as well. It is estimated that nearly 40% of American’s will be considered obese in 2019. That is an increase from nearly 34% who were considered obese in 2008. While many factors contribute to the obesity epidemic, it is clear that many of the “fad” diets and exercise routines are not working. 

Just as with diet and fitness, there is no substitute for hard work when it comes to leadership and developing leaders. There are no “quick fixes” or shortcuts to leadership. There is no substitute for hard work and putting in the time that is needed to improve. To achieve real fitness goals, a routine must be developed and followed. It is the same with leadership. We need to make time to establish routines and habits that will make us more productive and more effective leaders. Once these routines get established, we need to make sure we consistently follow these routines, so they become positive habits in our lives. There have been many leadership “fads” over the years, but the basic principles of managing to people’s strengths, treating others as you would want to be treated, and leading by example cannot be substituted for the latest leadership “fad” to hit the market. As with fitness and diet, steady and consistent progress will always beat fast gains that cannot be sustained over time. Consistency is key to any fitness program, and it is the same with leadership.

2. Take time to celebrate our achievements

Any good fitness coach will tell you that it is essential to set goals for yourself and take time to celebrate accomplishments. A goal could be a cheat meal at the end of a certain number of weeks, a vacation, a day at the spa, or anything that is viewed as a reward for accomplishing our goals. These celebrations help reinforce good behaviors and give us something to look forward to.

Likewise, it is important that we as leaders take time to celebrate our professional accomplishments and the accomplishments of our team. Many leaders can be so focused on “what is next” that they do not take the time to celebrate what was just completed. It is easy to get into a routine where we focus solely on the tasks ahead and try and lead the team from project-to-project. As of late, I have come to appreciate the power of celebrating accomplishments with the team. These celebrations give the team something to look forward to and can serve as a way for everyone to take a break from the daily routine. Celebrations can be done in a variety of ways. Such examples can include things like gift cards for high performing employees, lunch parties with the team, offsite celebrations, and public recognition. 

We as leaders need to remember to take time to celebrate the accomplishments of our team and not merely focus on the next task at hand. Setting goals for yourself and your team is an important part of leadership. When these goals are met, we need to take time to celebrate our accomplishments and the accomplishments of our team. Recognition, sincere praise and celebration are powerful tools in every leader’s toolbox. 

3. Seek advice from experts who have gone before us

When I started my fitness routine the first thing I did was seek out advice from some of the best fitness experts I could find. I watched countless hours of YouTube videos learning how to properly perform exercises, talked to fitness coaches and asked for their insight and critique, and read books. I realized that there were people who were successful that were willing to share their expertise with me if I was willing to take advice and listen. This advice was not a substitute for me doing my own work as I still had to learn to personalize what they shared and find what worked best for me. Their feedback saved me years of struggling with the wrong programs or form that could have led to serious injury, lack of progress and eventually frustration. 

Learning leadership principles and techniques can be very similar. My career has benefited enormously from people that have taken the time to teach me various leadership principles. Most of these were not formal mentoring relationships but simply me asking questions and observing the behaviors and choices of those I respected. To be clear, I am talking about people who have proven to be successful in business and leadership. Not individuals who are trying to sell us the latest theory or fad with no credentials to back it up. There are many successful people out there who are willing to teach and share what worked for them. We can learn from multiple sources including books, podcasts, seminars, mentoring, and professional societies. It is up to us to seek out this information and then personalize it to our own leadership style and abilities. 

An example of this is the first President of the United States. When George Washington was addressing his group of volunteers in the Virginia Regiment in 1756 he told them: 

“And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example, let us read for this desirable end.” 

George Washington understood that if he could not find an example of the leadership he was seeking, history could be his guide in the form of books to help him get the answers he was seeking. All of the great leaders I know have taken the time to study other successful leaders and learn what worked for them so they can apply these principles for themselves. Learning from the experiences (both successes and failures) of those that are proven leaders is something every leader should do. 

Thank you for reading Part 1 of this blog. Part 2 and the conclusion will be posted next week.