Are You Fit To Lead?
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a training on team coaching. At some point during the training, the instructor made the comment, “Team coaching is like the X Games of coaching. You have to be fit for it.”
There ensued a lively discussion of what it means to be fit, and how to cultivate fitness for that particular “sport.” What interests me is that there are so many ways to think about fitness. And as far as I can tell, every one of them is relevant to excellent leadership.
And not just relevant. I would argue that being fit to lead is actually integral to your success, and more important than any of your technical skills or knowledge. Of course, there’s a baseline level of technical competence that any leader needs. But beyond that, what differentiates some leaders and sets them apart is not a higher level of technical skill, but rather fitness for the role.
What do I mean when I say “fit to lead?” Here are four dimensions of fitness that I believe are key to a leader’s long term success, and some simple suggestions for cultivating them. I’m sure there are others – let me know how you think about being fit to lead in the comments!
Leadership, like team coaching, doesn’t require the level of elite athletic ability that you need to compete in the X Games. It does, however, require a basic level of physical fitness and health.
How do you keep yourself physically fit and healthy? You already know the answer to that, I’m sure. The physical fitness craze has been sweeping this country for long enough that you’ve seen the checklists: drink enough water, eat healthy food, exercise regularly, get enough sleep.
And yet, do you do these things? Do the leaders around you do these things? So many of us neglect these basic habits, because we don’t think of them as integral to our performance. We think of them as “nice to have,” not “need to have,” despite the substantial evidence that tending to these basic habits increases our effectiveness and performance.
Take action: For the next month, identify one new habit you’ll cultivate to improve your physical fitness.
- Keep it simple. Pick just one thing, and make it something you can easily integrate into your life.
- For example, you might choose to go to bed 30 minutes earlier every night. Or bring a healthy lunch to work rather than eat out every day. Or take the stairs rather than the elevator.
- As best you can, take this new action every day for one month. Pay attention to what difference it makes.
- At the end of the month, pick another new habit to cultivate.
In some ways, being mentally fit for leadership requires the same habits as being physically fit. After all, our brains aren’t separate from our bodies. Our brains are PART of our bodies. They need care and feeding, too.
I’m not talking about playing mental games to make yourself smarter. I’m talking about recognizing that the same things that nourish your body nourish your brain. Want to be mentally fit? Drink enough water, eat healthy food, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.
One additional habit will also enhance your mental fitness: take regular breaks throughout your day. Go for a walk around the building. Get outside to breathe some fresh air. Call someone you love and check in. Do something to give your brain a rest from the constant demands that modern leadership places on it, and it will come back refreshed and better able to focus and think creatively.
Take action: Identify one step you can take to build regular breaks into your day.
- Plan for both what you’ll do during your breaks, and how you’ll remind yourself to take them.
- For example, you might choose to take a 5-10 minute walk through or around your building, and remind yourself by setting an alarm on your computer or your phone.
- What’s important is to give your body and brain some time away from your desk. Allow your mind to wander, rather than plan for your next task.
Leadership is one of the most challenging jobs around. You’re responsible for motivating, guiding, and aligning diverse groups of people, who likely have strong (and differing) opinions. They may or may not like each other. Their work styles are so different that they struggle to understand each other. This is in addition to managing the work itself, in an environment that is likely much more complex and ambiguous than it used to be.
To excel in this role requires a certain level of emotional fitness and maturity. You need to be aware of and able to manage your own emotions. You need to be aware of and able to empathize with the emotions of others. When the intensity level rises, you need to be able to remain the least anxious person in the room.
You develop these emotional abilities through practice: paying attention to your physical sensations and emotional experience; describing your emotions rather than ignoring them; cultivating a way to regulate your emotional state when you start feeling frustrated or angry or hopeless.
Take action: Find appropriate ways to express your emotional experience.
- First practice labeling the emotions you recognize, e.g. happy, worried, angry, content.
- Maybe expressing your experience means talking with a partner or trusted friend and sharing your “emotional day.” Perhaps writing in a journal works well for you.
- Practice describing your emotions with words rather than acting them out through your behaviors. It’s the difference between saying “I’m angry,” and raising your voice.
- Try observing your emotions while simultaneously experiencing them.
When I think of “spiritual fitness” in the context of leadership, it boils down to one question:
Is your leadership in service to something bigger than yourself?
Sometimes the “something bigger than yourself” is the mission of your organization. I’ve worked with clients in education who are in education because they care deeply about children and their well-being. I once knew an executive director of a local non-profit who had a sign on his door that said, “What did I do today that furthered our mission?”
Sometimes the “something bigger than yourself” is more personal, less organizational. For example, a colleague and I once did a team coaching engagement with an organization where the leader was deeply committed to nurturing the growth and development of his team. Parts of the process were challenging, and he wasn’t always comfortable. But he was able to stick with it because he was so clear about his commitment to his team members.
This sort of dedication to something bigger than yourself provides inspiration and enhances your resilience when times get tough. As you encounter the inevitable challenges and setbacks of leadership, it’s much easier to not take things personally and keep going when you’re clear about your larger purpose.
Take action: Schedule quarterly coffee breaks with yourself to reflect on your larger purpose as a leader.
- Every few months, schedule an hour into your calendar and take yourself out for coffee.
- As you drink your coffee, reflect on the question, “What is my larger purpose as a leader right now?” Your answer may stay the same, or change over time.
- Also ask yourself, “How are my actions as a leader supporting that purpose? Given my purpose, are there any changes I want to make?”
- It can be useful to jot down notes, so you can see patterns over time.
Next time you consider developing yourself as a leader, think about which of these four types of fitness you want to incorporate into the process. As I said earlier, while technical skills are important, cultivating your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness to lead is equally important. Ultimately, it will be what sets you part as a leader.
What about you? How do you keep yourself fit to lead? What difference does it make in your effectiveness? What types of fitness have I overlooked? I’d love to hear your comments!