WHAT IS PEAK LEADERSHIP FITNESS?
Are you leadership fit? I’m not asking whether you can run a mile, do an hour of hot yoga, or do 20 push-ups. Being leadership fit is about being at the top of your leadership game. It requires great balance of both the people and task aspects of leadership. You must be focused, engaged, and adaptive while delivering positive results. It’s about your performance and ongoing personal improvement. It requires you to take an active role in incorporating ongoing development to continuously develop your leadership skills. And it’s about being transformational—both for you and for those you lead.
Peak Leadership Fitness
An aspirational state built upon consistently striving toward exceptional interpersonal and technical skills, adaptability through learning, and consistently positive results. It is built by balancing capability, capacity, and mental toughness. It is accomplished through strong and accurate self-awareness and a combination of relevant activities as part of a regular development routine. Peak leadership fitness allows you to bring your full and best energy to your leadership.
Peak leadership fitness is dynamic and aspirational because once you realize your potential and achieve your goals, you have a new platform, or baseline, on which you can continue to learn and grow. I think that is great news, because it implies you already have a starting point for your leadership fitness, with the potential to further elevate your leadership. It also implies that you have far greater and ongoing potential for growth.
Leadership fitness requires physical energy, emotional connection, and mental toughness. It is about capability and capacity. Capability comes from your knowledge and skills, while capacity comes from your energy and engagement. This all needs to be balanced with mental toughness and a leadership mindset. Your mindset evolves from experiences, feedback, and reflection. The best leaders can effectively manage these attributes and continuously evolve through self-awareness, feedback, and reflection. Peak leadership requires active participation and planning.
So, are you working toward your leadership best? Are you bringing your best energy to your leadership? Are you taking the necessary steps to achieve your peak leadership fitness? If you’re not striving for peak leadership fitness, you may not be working out as a leader.
Two Challenges Facing Today’s Leaders
I have worked with, coached, and taught many leaders during my career, and I’ve found that they face two critical challenges when it comes to their development:
• Challenge 1: Today’s leaders do not have enough time to focus on development. There are simply too many demands, and development doesn’t just take a back seat—it often rides in the trunk. This is particularly evident with more seasoned leaders who often have so many priorities that leadership development rarely rises to the top. Unfortunately, with the increasing focus on results and demands on leaders’ time, this is only going to become more challenging.
• Challenge 2: Many leaders don’t know where to start. This is further exacerbated by a crowded leadership development landscape. It has become increasingly difficult to make sense of which activities will yield the best results. Consequently, many leaders become passive participants in their growth—waiting for someone else to serve up their development.
Some leaders do nothing when it comes to their development, or worse, they invest their valuable time and money on the wrong activities, which includes anything that does not help reinforce or improve leadership. This can be costly both financially and in terms of misdirected effort and results.
Much like your physical health, when it comes to your leadership fitness, what you consume matters. You will not stay healthy by fasting for extended periods or consuming the wrong things. The implications extend beyond time and money to include performance and engagement. It is too easy for leaders to build unhealthy habits around their development and become disengaged from their own growth and performance. The most common unhealthy habit I see leaders engage in is inattention to their development. Most people realize they should focus on their fitness (both leadership and physical), but other priorities often get in the way. Life gets in the way. Over time, this takes its toll and performance suffers.
Let me transition to some good news. Leadership development does not need to be expensive or overly time consuming. Much like your physical health and fitness, though, it cannot be ignored or neglected. You must take action and build good habits. In the introduction, I described four fitness principles, which I’ll discuss further in the next chapter. The first fitness principle states that you must take the first step. And that step should be well thought out as to your goals, your resources, and what will give you the best results.
Why Should You Be Leadership Fit?
Great leadership is not about you; it is about those you lead. A key aspect of leadership is engaging and motivating the people you lead. Unfortunately, low engagement has reached epidemic proportions. There are multiple studies that show that a significant amount of employee engagement—up to 70 percent in some cases—can be attributed to a person’s leader. This means that if we can get leadership right, we’ll have a real chance to create an engaged workforce. This becomes a force multiplier, too, where your actions inspire multiple people to strive to be their best and bring their best energy to what they do. Now that’s the type of organization and team I want to be part of.
However, there is much work to be done when it comes to engagement. Many of those same studies that highlight the importance of leadership to drive engagement also show that as little as 15 percent of employees feel engaged. That is a huge gap with significant implications. When you factor in the lost productivity and associated turnover costs, the implications of low engagement quickly add up.
Becoming leadership fit is a major step toward bridging the engagement gap by inspiring those you lead. I have seen this firsthand. People want to connect with a vision. They want to be energized by their leaders. Members of those teams have a tremendous amount of initiative, effort, and commitment. Leadership expert Steve Arneson offers up a profound question that has stuck with me: Do you want to be known as the type of leader who does something to those you lead or for those you lead?
Make Your Leadership Development Transformational
Dave was a product manager at a large global technology organization. He told me that during his annual performance review, his boss said he needed to work on his leadership skills. Dave was completely surprised by the feedback, and wasn’t exactly sure what that even meant. He thought everyone already liked him.
I told Dave that leadership is not about being liked. It is about setting a clear direction, motivating and inspiring people, and developing them. It is about bringing out the best in people and getting results. Dave said he had never thought about it that way. In fact, he said he hadn’t given it much thought at all. However, Dave knew he needed to improve or his career opportunities would be limited.
Dave’s response to my next question would have a profound effect on the direction we would take and the results he ultimately achieved.
“Are you looking to ‘check a box’ or do you want this to be transformational?” I asked.
To his credit, Dave paused, thought about it, and then said he wanted this to be transformational. I could see that Dave was eager to get started right away, but he had no idea where to begin.
What Dave didn’t know was that he had already begun. He recognized he needed to improve and described the type of leader he wanted to be: one who provides vision, direction, and feedback, and who develops future leaders. Stating his intentions was the easy part—akin to having a New Year’s resolution. Bringing it to life was going to take commitment and effort.
Dave and I immediately began to outline our plan of attack using the same plan in this book. With his boss’s support, Dave completed a 360-degree assessment that included input from Dave’s current boss, a former boss, six of his peers, his three direct reports, and four other colleagues. Dave was careful to select people that he knew would give him honest, candid feedback.
When his results were ready, Dave was nervous. “I have no idea what to expect with these results,” he told me. “I didn’t sleep well last night thinking about what people might have said about me.”
I reminded him that this was an opportunity to see how he was being perceived—positively and negatively—and that it was better to be aware of this than not. “Awareness doesn’t change the perception; it drives action.”
Dave’s feedback covered a wide spectrum of responses, and although generally positive, he was discouraged by some of the comments. He skimmed right over the positive ones, but lingered on the negative, such as, “Dave is often unapproachable” and “There’s a lack of direction under Dave.”
Feeling defensive, Dave explained that he was busy working on an important new product development, hence his closed door, and that he thought everyone knew what their responsibilities were.
Then he paused, realizing that his defenses would not change these perceptions. He even admitted that he could get so focused on his projects that he walked right by his team without even acknowledging them, only realizing what had just happened after the fact, if at all. Once Dave accepted the feedback, we worked on a plan to capitalize on his strengths and improve a couple other areas.
Dave’s plan included a steady yet balanced diet of activities, such as mentoring two recent hires in other departments to share his business knowledge and shadowing Brenda from the marketing department, who was regarded as an amazing leader with high emotional intelligence, strong marketing acumen, and acute strategic planning skills. Dave was an active participant in the shadowing relationship, asking many questions while also providing insights of his own. His experience with Brenda became transformational and helped him in ways he hadn’t imagined.
In fact, the experience turned out to be mutually beneficial. Working with Dave helped Brenda see more clearly how and when disconnects occurred with her own staff. While she wasn’t that enthusiastic about someone “following her around” at first, she found that Dave’s questions led to insights she might not have gained from a direct report. For Brenda, the experience with Dave served as a restart on staff development. It increased her capability and her staff’s trust in their own intuition.
Dave also found a leadership podcast about team engagement, being approachable, and creating an open-door culture. He committed to keeping a journal to record his thoughts from his shadowing experiences and listening to the podcasts. He divided his journal pages into three columns of information, recording what he learned, what he was going to try, and insights from applying ideas.
Dave and I kept in touch often as he worked on his plan. He occasionally reminded me how easy it would be to push these activities down on his priority list. He simply had too many meetings to attend, and he had to get the new product launched. But despite these obstacles, he remained committed to the plan.
After two months, Dave started noticing some minor changes. He made greeting his team a morning ritual. He made it a priority to always acknowledge them when he passed them in the hallway. He would stop by their desks to check in, and they soon began stopping by his office, too. Some of the conversations they had were casual, but many had a business focus. In fact, during one of those conversations a direct report helped Dave work through a big challenge with the new product he was working on.
Seven months after Dave’s initial feedback, he launched his new product, and it exceeded many of the projections. This was in part due to his having redefined the marketing strategy based on input from Brenda. In addition to the strategic planning knowledge she had shared with him over the months, she also provided important insights that contributed to the success of the new product launch.
Transformation happens when you move from ideas to action in a deliberate way. The result can be marked in time as a version of you before and after. Dave was deliberate in his approach to his development when he accepted the feedback, decided on what kind of leader he wanted to be, developed a plan, and took action. There was an opportunity at every step along the way for him to give up or put off his commitment. But he persisted and the results paid off.
Motivation has to come from within. So why do you want to achieve your peak leadership fitness? Is it because you want to climb the corporate ladder? Do you want to make a difference in the lives of those you lead? Do you want to be a leader known for developing future leaders and delivering results?
If you want optimal results, one thing is certain—you must shift from leadership development activities that merely check a box to those that are transformational. Don’t be a leadership couch potato—doing nothing or passively participating in activities that come your way. Now is the time to take control and become the leader you’ve always wanted—and the one your team and organization need.
Tracking Your Performance
Let’s summarize some basics:
• If you sense you aren’t the leader you thought you were or the leader you want to be, I’m here to tell you that your intuition may be correct. You’ve been picking up the signals from somewhere. Your leadership glands are telling you to improve your leadership fitness.
• Start a leadership fitness log. Write down all the clues, comments, or glances—or moments of deadly silence—you’ve noticed coming from your team and colleagues. Be honest with yourself. Then write down what you said or didn’t say and what you did or didn’t do that prompted those behaviors.
• Leadership development requires self-awareness and focused effort. You’ll learn more about both in later chapters.
• Remember, leadership is not about you; it is primarily about them.