2. Four Fitness Principles – Peak Leadership Fitness:Elevating Your Leadership Game



Any significant endeavor requires clear goals and a commitment to them. However, reaching the peak requires more than that. To successfully move toward your goals, having a set of principles will drive action and help keep you centered and focused. There will be times when you want to be complacent and operate within your comfort zone. Fitness principles help define who you are and influence decisions about the actions you take throughout your journey. They are the commitments you make to yourself.

Principles can be learned through others or gained by personal experience, and they complement your mindset. In this chapter, I share the four principles I have come to rely on. As you read through this chapter, you may say to yourself, “Wait, is this a leadership or a fitness principle?” The answer is both. I have developed these principles over time, and they have been reinforced through stories—mine and others. They serve as reminders to drive motivation and decision making, and are particularly useful when doubt creeps into my mind or I feel like giving up. To be truly effective, each principle should work in harmony with the others.

Principle 1: You Never Know What You Are Capable of Until You Take That First Step

To grow, you must know your limits and push beyond them. This requires self-awareness and stretching the boundaries of your comfort zone. Because a body at rest tends to stay at rest, taking that first step gets momentum going in the right direction. Allowing your leadership skills to stay at rest is no different, as Brenda discovered in her work with Dave. You need to know in which direction to head, though.

Think big! When you set out toward a big new goal with something you’ve never tried before, you will learn a lot about yourself. For starters, you’re going to get a little—or maybe even a lot—uncomfortable.

Remember, you don’t need to go it alone. The more ambitious the activity, the more support you will need along your journey. In fact, you may find great power in finding a training partner to help you along the way, provide support, and drive you on the days you are less motivated. Accepting help and seeking support is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of wisdom.

Leadership is an extreme test of performance, stamina, and endurance. It requires sacrifice and training. It requires setting ambitious (stretch) goals for yourself. Progress—even when falling short of your goal—is a great way to calibrate your capabilities for your next effort. Ask yourself, “How did I do?” “What could I do differently next time?” “How can I improve my performance?” “What did I learn?”

Having ambitious goals is fantastic, but it is critical to have that baseline of data to determine feasibility and what constitutes a stretch for the future. How to establish the baseline required for leadership fitness is covered in chapter 4.

When it comes to leadership, do you want to be ordinary or extraordinary? The answer begins with an idea of what is possible. What do you think is possible with your leadership? What type of leader do you want to be? Determining that requires some thought, and frankly that is the easy part. The ongoing action required on your part and the obstacles you will encounter along the way is what makes leadership difficult.

Principle 2: You Must Put in the Work

This saying has stuck with me: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” In other words, there is no such thing as luck. Good fortune is the result of planning and effort. Of course, the amount and type of effort you are willing and able to put in will directly affect your results.

Wanting to be great is different from being great. The bridge between the two relies on the ability to put in the effort required to get better. There are no shortcuts.

Can you imagine only going to the gym once and expecting results? Of course not. If I told you a story about a person waking up one morning and doing an Ironman, a marathon, or another significant endurance event with no training, you would think that person was foolish. They likely would not be able to complete it. If they were somehow fortunate enough to pull it off, they would have merely checked the box to say they completed such a feat—it would not have been their best effort. The same goes for leadership. Ultimate performance requires continued effort and sacrifice.

On the other hand, when you put in the effort, your current strengths and expertise become a platform for you to build upon. As you build, you raise the bar for your capabilities, establishing a new standard for your performance.

Raise the Bar

Brad manages 10 R&D engineers who are developing products to be rolled out in two years. His job is to meet the deadlines for all 10 products; some are dependent on other products, while are add-ons to existing products in the customer base. Brad often felt caught between the different work styles and personalities of the engineers and the executives down the hall. For example, one engineer tended to dominate progress-report staff meetings, while it felt like pulling teeth to get other engineers to share any details or nuance in answer to basic questions. Yet, Brad’s calendar was rolling along, and he needed to know if more resources were required to meet deadlines. Then one day, an exec asked if he could sit in a staff meeting. Brad gulped.

Staff meetings—in an ideal world—should work well. Engineers hear the problems and snags of colleagues and offer suggestions. Unfortunately, Brad’s engineers had not been exposed to collaborative culture. Some acted like they were competing with others on the team, while others were cube hermits. This tended to lead to too many questions being met with silence in the staff meeting.

Brad realized that he needed to work differently to enable his team to work differently. He decided that replacing the group meetings with one-on-ones would help him identify performance snags. If he could isolate which engineers had similar issues, he could help them make the jump to a new performance level.

The announcement of the one-on-one meetings produced some “What did I do wrong?” glances. Brad started by meeting with the most proficient engineers who were more or less on schedule. His goal was to let everyone know he had their back and would do what he could to help. Word got around.

As he progressed with the one-on-ones, Brad began to see several types of performance issues. One was the all-too-common “but it’s not 110 percent complete yet” syndrome—an issue of perfection pride that can cause deadlines to slip. But a big issue Brad had not known about was coming from outside his engineering group: imprecise instructions from product managers in marketing, who were not engineers and had an incomplete concept of specifications.

Brad asked his fellow managers to consider an off-site meeting to troubleshoot the issues his team was facing. Although several of them complained about taking time away, Brad convinced them it was worth it. After all, he said, this could be your problem next year. So, in effect, Brad was helping his colleagues raise their own performance bar by stepping out of their comfort zone. Several executives noticed Brad’s initiative.

Brad put a lot of work into the off-site. He prepared descriptions of problems he’d encountered, both from his own team and from outside colleagues at noncompeting firms he’d consulted with. But he also asked the other managers to come up with at least one problem in their own group. The common issues included cost overruns and how to handle complaints about product features from the sales staff and marketing product managers, an issue that could bring productivity to a halt. After the off-site, Brad compiled the results in a reference website that all managers could access.

By taking these actions, Brad became seen as the lead engineering manager, the go-to guy for handling the problems of introspective engineers who had little collaboration experience but whose projects were supposed to bring in big revenue—or else. The marketing director even asked him to meet with her product managers to instruct them on writing specs.

Brad identified the issues, recognized his managerial rut, did an intervention, built consensus, and set a new standard for engineering management at his company. It took some time, but in the end, it saved time. Brad was not just managing his group; he was leading the way.

He raised the bar for everyone.

What are you doing to raise the bar? Are you willing to put in the work necessary to achieve your leadership goals? Do you know where to start? The real work begins in chapter 4: creating accurate self-awareness and developing your plan. Then the ongoing work you will need to put in to strengthen your leadership muscles and remain flexible is covered in chapters 5 through 7.

Principle 3: You Learn More About Yourself When Times Are Tough

Even when you have taken the first step and put in the effort, things won’t always go as planned. Once you commit to your goals, don’t give up. Challenges will inevitably arise, and the ability to cope with and navigate them will go a long way toward your success. This requires grit and a “can-do” mindset.

Even the most successful professional athletes have a hunger to be better. They are willing to put in additional effort, sacrifice, and overcome obstacles. Michael Jordan and LeBron James—both extremely talented professional basketball players, among the best of their generations—are widely known as being extremely driven to get better. In fact, they are known to be perfectionists and their own worst critics. There are no doubt other athletes with an amazing amount of talent who were not as successful; we may not even remember their names. Talent alone is not enough.

Leading and Learning Amid Crises

Neal is a top salesperson in his company, which produces large computer systems for news media companies. The hardware is proprietary rather than based on the standards of personal computers. Everything is tailor made for each media company; no other industries can use the system.

The media companies’ CEOs loved the system because it could not fail due to backup processors. This meant that no ads and programs would be lost. Their older employees knew how well the system worked and knew Neal’s company could always add more features in response to requests from the users’ group. But younger employees were used to standard desktop applications, so they were not as fond of the big proprietary system. In fact, it was commonly referred to in the industry as the 800-pound gorilla of media systems.

When the director of marketing at Neal’s company was fired unexpectedly, Neal was hired in his place. Because he had been in the field listening to complaints, Neal recognized the importance of doing joint ventures with other companies. This allowed their solutions to rest on the big system’s platform. It was patch work, but it kept the customer base happy. Neal was popular within his territory and word grew through the user base that Neal could be trusted.

Unfortunately, when the founder of the company decided to move on, the remaining executives assembled a buyout and the company incurred heavy debt. In addition, some former employees back-engineered the hardware and were now selling their terminals at a considerable savings. In addition, the younger customer base continued asking for more applications and features that could not be ported to the old system without additional joint ventures. Neal had some big marketing problems to tackle and some big financial pressure from the banks. This was nothing like his days in sales.

Neal persevered, exploring more joint venture deals while finding ways R&D could accommodate the restless customer base. But then the bomb dropped. The banks became anxious and forced the company into bankruptcy. It’s one thing for a company to go bankrupt, but it’s worse when the company’s customers are global media giants.

The bankruptcy announcement came a week before the European media industry trade show. Awful timing. As the show opened, the company’s European managing director had to meet with the systems manager of a European media outlet who had just bought the system. So, Neal quickly called a meeting of the European users’ group. He knew he had to sell them on the company’s ability to restructure. “We aren’t going away,” he said. He also brought in the company’s attorney to explain the situation.

Trusted for his straight talk and ability to arrange joint ventures, Neal was able to help the company survive the restructuring. Few employees left. No customers left, in part, because smaller vendors saw the added value of porting their solutions to the company’s fail-safe platform. Eventually, the proprietary hardware and software evolved into standards-based code and computers.

Neal, pursued by other companies, eventually moved on. He could have stayed in sales, which was a comfortable, predictable, and consistent lifestyle for him. But Neal never forgot how that tough situation had brought out the best in him—revealing skills he would otherwise not have used. After all, it’s one thing to be a leading salesperson in a defined territory. It’s quite a different thing to be a leader in a worldwide marketplace. He would never have known.

As a leader, you are going to be faced with adversity. It may come in the form of a crucial conversation you need to have or that someone has with you. Perhaps it will be staff related or about a budget or project challenge. Adversity tends to be unpredictable, so you may not know when it will strike or what form it will take. The difference in whether you react or respond comes down to your preparation. Do you have the leadership mindset to withstand the challenge?

Remember, leadership is not always about adversity. What about when times are good? Do you have that hunger or drive to be at your best, to elevate yourself, the team, and the organization? Or is “good enough” good enough? Chapter 3 introduces the concept of the leadership mindset and how to go about strengthening yours.

Principle 4: What You Consume Matters

Performance requires discipline. There are countless scientific examples detailing the importance of nutrition for performance. They talk about proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, hydration, and glucose levels. The same goes for leadership development. When it comes to your leadership development “diet,” you’re often told about leadership courses, leadership books, industry publications, mentoring, and stretch assignments. Are you starving yourself of the important leadership development nutrients (skills) that your body and mind need to thrive? Are you taking a healthy approach to your development?

The simple, nonscientific translation is that what you consume matters. What you put into the system influences the output. It matters for growth, energy, and recovery.

Food is the body’s fuel, just as development activities are the fuel for your leadership capabilities. If you consume nothing or the wrong things, you will run out of energy to compete at your best. It’s as simple as that. In the fitness world, this is called bonking, and it means hitting the proverbial wall or losing energy. Even seasoned athletes lose energy when they do not consume the right foods. Leaders won’t perform at their best if they do not focus on their development or development activities that advance their skills. They may also lack self-awareness and mental readiness.

Prepare to Win

Sue has had the usual ups and downs of any sales manager. She wants her team to bring home the gold every quarter. But with salespeople spread across three states, time is unforgiving.

Sue recently recognized that both she and her team were feeding off the same diet of sales pitches, war stories, and old ways to overcome prospects’ objections. The Internet was changing everything, including how people worked and what information they had access to, and Sue realized that her team’s “menu” needed variety and improvement.

Sue identified three new concepts for the reps to chew on as they planned each call:

1. Identify the Silent Savant in each account. That’s what Sue called the person who says nothing and influences everyone. They just sit there twirling a pen with a blank expression, waiting for the rep to leave. This often meant that the sale was lost without the rep hearing the objection.

2. Identify their failed snacks. These are the tactics they’ve used for too long that don’t close the deal. Old habits! Sue wanted to make sure her team avoided a diet of empty calories. It took some time for Sue to convince some reps to stop running around giving the same spiel to prospects, regardless of what the prospect was saying.

3. Identify the one thing they needed training on. Sue did this privately with each rep. She had them name one specific, practical item.

What you consume matters when you enter the competition, be it physical or professional. Sue was determined to change the way her team prepared for their calls. No more old habits. Habits are hard to change, but Sue’s leadership refreshed everyone’s preparation for winning.

Tracking Your Performance

When it comes to leadership, you cannot ignore your development and expect results. You need to properly fuel your leadership engine. This requires quality, variety, and consistency of development activities.

For optimal performance, you need to incorporate a variety of appropriate development activities into your leadership diet. Leaders who want sustained energy don’t eat one big meal—that is, participate in one development program every year or so—and then fast in between. They also likely don’t skip meals entirely. Instead, they have a steady, well-balanced diet. It is the same for the food you eat and the development you pursue.

Remember the adage from adult learning theorist Kurt Lewin: “Adults learn best by doing.” You’ll read more about that in chapter 6. Unfortunately for most leaders, there is often a steady diet—perhaps even an overabundance—of doing. They operate in a fast-paced, results-oriented environment that shows no signs of changing.

The real challenge is transforming action into learning. That requires reflection. As difficult as it may be, it is important to hit the pause button occasionally. Take time to think about and reflect on leadership activities, challenges, and accomplishments. What did you do? What did you learn? What would you do the same or different next time?

It is not simply about consumption or logging some hollow hours toward your growth, development, and performance. It is important to consider the “right” activities to include in your routine, which will largely depend upon your goals. This is where your development plan is essential. It provides a bit of structure rather than simply moving from one activity to the next. It allows you to balance and control your development and, ultimately, your ongoing effectiveness as a leader.