5. Strengthen Your Core – Peak Leadership Fitness:Elevating Your Leadership Game



When it comes to leadership fitness, your core is the knowledge and skills you have accumulated over time. It’s what you know. It drives what you do, and ultimately your performance. It is the foundation on which your future skills, habits, actions, and results are built (Figure 5-1). You are likely building this through some combination of formal training, reading, and observing. In fact, sometimes you may not even have known you were building your core.

Figure 5-1. Your Leadership Core

Having a strong core results in greater balance, stability, and movement. Whether you know it or not, you likely rely on your foundation on a regular basis, whether you’re making decisions, solving problems, or taking other important leadership actions. It shapes your way of thinking and the resulting actions. If you build a strong core, you will likely have a positive leadership mindset.

If you hired a personal trainer to work with you on a fitness routine, a fair amount of core work would be included because it is so fundamental and is the origin of much of your power. Like your physical fitness, the strength of your core will help determine how the rest of your fitness goes. With that in mind, have you been focusing on it with the intent to ensure you have the strongest core possible? Have you been building good habits and a strong core?

I have some great news for you. You have been working on building your core your whole life. That means you already have a good start on this area. By now, you should have identified what you want to focus on through an assessment. Strengthening your core allows you to refine and validate your focus and consider some alternatives to easily incorporate into your regular routine.

Achieving peak leadership fitness is about know-how, know-why, and know-what. Expertise plays a significant role in both credibility and capability. Expertise is not developed by accident. It requires intention and attention.

This chapter provides an opportunity to ensure you’ve been developing the “right” core leadership muscles—those skills that are critical for ongoing leadership impact. Like the heart rate training zones used for optimal physical fitness, the four leadership skill zones I’ll introduce will help you organize leadership skills as foundational or higher-order ones. The zones can be beneficial as you continue your leadership journey. I will also provide tips for how to effectively strengthen your core so you can get the best results.

A Word About Expertise

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell (2011) popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. In short, natural ability takes time to develop. The key is repetition. Along these lines, the important aspect to peak leadership fitness, or becoming an expert in anything for that matter, is that the repetition is built upon a strong foundation, or core, of good habits. You must learn and practice the right things. This book provides the steps to establishing good habits and incorporating them into your daily routine.

Expertise is typically viewed as a good thing, but beware of relying too much on it. It is important to recognize that expertise has a dark side. In his book Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition, Stephen Shapiro (2011) points out that expertise can also inhibit you. He suggests that expertise can be the enemy of innovation because the more you know about a topic, the tougher it is for you to think differently. The lesson here is not to avoid becoming an expert on leadership, but to maintain an open mind to alternative perspectives. Shapiro highlights the importance of connecting the dots to other disciplines, which requires time and effort.

The best leaders find a way to operate at their personal best. Often, these are the leaders who make it look easy. However, as I have gotten to know them, I realized something important. They all spend time—often behind the scenes—thinking about, planning for, and developing their leadership. Peak leadership fitness takes time, planning, and action.

You might be thinking, “Wait, earlier you said you don’t envision me getting more time or resources to support my leadership development.” That’s right, so it is more important than ever for you to find easily accessible opportunities to continuously develop your leadership and work toward your peak leadership fitness.

Common Ground

Effective marketers know that while an organization can have only one overall marketing strategy, each product—aimed at a distinct audience and solving a specific problem—has its own specific marketing strategy. Otherwise, mixed messages lead to mixed-up consumers. No one needs confusion in competitive environments.

Likewise, mixed messages about leadership in an organization can also be very confusing. They can result in turnover and inconsistent performance reviews.

Anna, the president of a large consumer goods company, approached me about building leadership skills for the company’s 600-plus product managers. She wanted to elevate the collective leadership capabilities.

Having worked on several similar projects throughout my career, I was excited for the opportunity. After some extensive conversations with Anna and feeling like I had a handle on the objectives she had in mind, I felt ready to jump right into the assignment. I planned to focus on strategy and perhaps even include some of the activities I discuss in this book.

However, before I started down that path, I decided to get the senior leadership team together—a dozen of the senior-most senior members of the organization—and ask them a simple question: “What does effective leadership mean to you?”

I was surprised to find that I got several different responses about what it meant to be an effective leader. These differences translated into what behaviors were being reinforced and how leaders were held accountable.

As we discussed this openly with the group, Anna was quick to point out, “We are not even speaking the same language of leadership within this team. Can you imagine how this is magnified across the organization?” It took mere moments for the 12 senior leaders to admit they were giving mixed messages to the company managers about what constituted leadership.

Consensus about leadership know-how and leadership training programs could not be achieved if each member of the senior leadership team answered a basic question about leadership differently. That ripples right down to the 600 product managers, the consequences of which could be brand conflicts and consumer confusion.

I took it a step further and asked Ed, the senior vice president of finance, “What’s it like being a leader here?”

“You might think you were doing great in one aspect of leadership only to find that was not the case based on someone else’s perceptions,” Ed responded. “The mixed messages make it confusing, probably frustrating too.” There was agreement that the senior leadership team had been reinforcing what they individually felt was important rather than having a single, powerful leadership message. We spent several more sessions together defining a leadership language for the organization.

Unfortunately, this experience is not uncommon. Leadership often means different things to different people. And that in itself may not be bad at first. Each perspective deserves exploration. Some may be arranged in a hierarchy of leadership needs, with the most basic one handled first. So, we set about putting their varying perspectives on leadership in order along with a program for staged execution and training.

To say the least, Anna was greatly relieved when the revised leadership program was launched and quite satisfied at its completion a year later.

What Are the Right Leadership Skills?

So, you want to be a great leader? Then it’s important that you know which skills to focus on to make the best use of your limited time and resources for development. What do you need to do to be an effective leader? Perhaps more important, what do you need to do different? Unfortunately, sometimes finding the answer to those questions is easier said than done. But other times it might be as simple as asking for clarity.

Leadership by itself is not a skill. It is a very broad collection of skills that you need to draw on depending on circumstance. That circumstance could be organization specific, centered on a certain direct report’s need, or based on a particular business challenge. You do not need to master all the skills to achieve peak leadership fitness. However, you do need to have relative balance across the types of leadership skills. As stated previously, you need to be self-aware of how comfortable and adept you are at these skills, as well as which ones matter most within your organization. And then you must know when to draw on the expertise of others.

I’ve organized the leadership skills into a series of four zones called leadership skill zones (Figure 5-2). They begin with foundational skills and progress to more complex and higher-order ones. To be effective, leaders must develop in each area: technical knowledge, interpersonal skills, personal skills, and complex process skills. Together, these make up your core.

Figure 5-1. Leadership Skill Zones

As you move throughout your leadership journey, you’ll need to emphasize some areas over others. For example, leaders early in their career must focus more on their technical skills. As your career evolves and you take on additional leadership responsibilities, begin delegating more of the technical skills to make time for complex process skills.

There are two important insights related to skills. First, there will always be a high need for strong interpersonal skills at every organization and at every level of leadership. Second, as Daniel Pink asserted in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011), effort trumps ability every time. In other words, take initiative and give your best effort.

One successful and respected leader once told me, “Do your job well and find the projects no one else wants to touch. Take them on and do them well, and you will gain a great deal of respect as a leader.” Think about the power and impact of your leadership if you combine ability with effort. You would be well on your way to peak leadership fitness. The effort is on you, but I am here to help you focus on the right skills.

Zone 1: Technical Skills

Technical skills may be the most underrated of the leadership skills family. When it comes to fine-tuning your technical skills, focus on the following areas: the most common topics you come across, the most important ones, and the most challenging. You must know the business, your competitive landscape, and whatever area of specialization you are supporting, such as finance, marketing, or operations.

What you know and your ability to apply it appropriately is a primary source of your professional credibility. However, this can also become a hindrance when you spend too much time being a technical expert and not enough taking on more advanced leadership skills. As you assume greater leadership responsibilities, you must let go of some of that technical expertise to allow you to focus on a broader set of areas and organizational challenges. In other words, you must let go of what you do best—your comfort zone—and delegate. This tends to be a big challenge for many leaders. If they are known for something or it is an area they are passionate about, it will be very difficult to let go of.

To evolve as a leader, you must develop strong financial acumen and know how the business runs. There are plenty of successful leaders with nonfinance backgrounds and even some lousy leaders with finance backgrounds, but it is critical for leaders to understand finance. At a minimum, you must be able to understand the business, build a budget, and manage a P&L statement.

Zone 2: Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal or “people” skills are as important as any other leadership skill. These skills include collaboration, emotional intelligence, working across departments and functions, and political savvy.

We all probably have firsthand knowledge of leaders who are quite successful by some measures and yet awkward or downright unprofessional in their treatment of others. We may wonder how they made it to their role, and more important, how they stay there.

One of my favorite examples is Steve Jobs. It is well documented that Jobs was extremely demanding and did not always treat employees and colleagues with respect (Isaacson 2015). But many people have suggested that his approach may have had merit, given how successful Apple was under his leadership. But can you imagine where we might be if he had developed five other Steve Jobses?

According to business writer Tony Schwartz, legendary leaders often behave in uninspiring ways. Many of Elon Musk’s employees, including those he fired, disliked his behavior but revered him, giving him almost superhero status. Jeff Bezos is likewise known for a demanding style that rubs some the wrong way (Schwartz 2015). But both Musk’s and Bezos’s teams have built remarkable organizations that have made fundamental changes in our own behaviors and lives.

However, there are many examples of great leaders who have strong interpersonal skills and are quite successful. For example, Bill George, former CEO of the major medical technology company Medtronic, is an example of an excellent corporate leader. During his 10 years with the company, Medtronic grew from a market capitalization of $1 billion to $60 billion. George was committed to continuously developing his and his team’s leadership. He refered to leadership as a journey.

Another example is Andy Grove, who led Intel for decades. As part of his leadership approach, Grove established explicit rules about meetings and the completion of tasks. They are still led by the same “musts.” Grove referred to management as a team game.

Regardless of their interpersonal skills, leaders must deliver results or they won’t stay leaders for long.

Imagine the Possibilities

Ray was a leader who believed he was always the smartest person in the room, and he wasn’t afraid to let everyone know it. Truth be told, he knew the business well and his technical skills were strong; not surprisingly, his interpersonal skills were quite low.

He led by fear, intimidation, and bullying, and regularly put down peers, colleagues, and direct reports in meetings or behind their backs. He seemed oblivious to the impact his behavior was having on morale, performance, and retention. He did not motivate, inspire, or develop others. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Very few people wanted to be on his team, which was known as “the place where careers go to die.”

You might think that Ray was a new leader and that his career was at a crossroads. Unfortunately, he was an established leader and among the most senior on the company’s leadership team.

How could this be?

While no one was able to figure out how Ray held onto his position, the impact he had on individuals and the organization was not pretty. His team became a revolving door of high performers. Once someone was developed or joined the team, they would move as quickly as they could or leave the organization altogether.

Can you imagine the influence and impact Ray would have had he used his position and power for good? Unfortunately for him and for those who worked with him, he either did not have the self-awareness of the effect of his leadership or he didn’t care.

A Tale of Two Leaders

Another organization had two leaders, Nancy and Oscar, both with low interpersonal skills. They were strong technically, had complex business challenges, and were significant contributors to their company’s bottom line. However, they often treated junior employees with disrespect. No one wanted to work for them despite their technical knowledge.

To be fair, Nancy worked at her deficiencies, the company invested in her development, and she was given feedback and extensive coaching; however, she never really improved. Because she got along with her peers, senior leadership let her stay on in a reduced capacity. She was given the position of technical expert with no direct reports, and her career progression capped off. Nancy was thrilled with the option, given the alternative, because she could contribute to the organization’s performance in a more limited capacity. The impression she left with many was relief at not having to manage direct reports. Leadership was too complicated for her.

Oscar’s case was similar, to a point. He also received feedback and coaching, but he never fully bought into the fact that he needed it, so he merely went through the motions. He attended all scheduled coaching sessions and feedback activities but was dismissive of them. The results showed. His disrespectful behavior continued until one day he took it a step too far. When a junior employee approached him for advice on a project, he said, “Do you want my advice? I suggest you start looking for another job.”

Devastated, the employee reported the incident to her direct supervisor. By the end of the day, Oscar’s employment was terminated.

Not every organization has the courage to stand behind their core values. But the company’s actions that day sent a clear message for what it and its leaders stood for and expected. Turnover of poorly treated employees is very costly to any organization. Even Oscar’s departure was costly.

You never wish for anyone to lose their job, but sometimes it happens. Imagine the possibilities if Oscar had devoted as much energy toward developing employees as he did in tearing them down.

Zone 3: Personal Skills

This part is simple. Personal skills are all about time management, project management, executive presence, and communication. They include how you get work done and how you show up—such as the way you dress, keep your office, and communicate. When people look to identify ways to build leadership skills for themselves or someone on their team, the most common request is for this area. The good news is that this is also the area where leaders can have the greatest transformation.

Both time management and project management are about whether you get the work done and how you go about it. Do you have a plan, involve others, make a good use of resources, and get projects done in a timely manner? Do you show up on time?

Communication typically involves how you get your message across both verbally and in writing. Do you make typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors? For instance, Vivian was a project manager for a consulting firm. She could produce some of the most graphically spectacular PowerPoint presentations. But they were full of poor sentence structure, typos, and inaccuracies.

The challenges for Vivian were twofold: First, she lacked skills when it came to grammar, expressing herself, and attention to detail. Second, she lacked the self-awareness to take corrective action, such as developing those skills or incorporating a review process into her projects. If she could overcome these challenges, she would not only elevate the quality of her work, but also increase the likelihood that she would learn.

When you present information, do you use a logical flow, good eye contact—and lots of ums? Public speaking is not for everyone, but if you are asked to do it and you want to be perceived as a strong, effective leader, you have got to get comfortable with it.

Express Yourself (but Be Reasonable)

Jeremy was well liked and intelligent, and he had a strong base of technical knowledge, excelling at complex processes. He was ambitious and often discussed his desire to get promoted.

But Jeremy’s personal skills—specifically his executive presence—left a lot to be desired. This was not news to Jeremy; he had received feedback at every review and talked about it openly; he even joked about it with colleagues.

Jeremy had a quirky approach to his wardrobe—nothing offensive or against policy, but not consistent with the culture of the organization. You might think that his expression of individuality was a good thing and more people should be this way. Indeed, many organizations and even some industries have adopted a more casual approach to the workplace. However, that wasn’t the case at Jeremy’s office. This is not about changing the norms; it’s about being aware of the norms for any organization you are part of and how you fit within them.

Jeremy was self-aware but admittedly didn’t care. He was fond of saying that it was what was in his head that mattered. That certainly does, but so does your executive presence.

His office was also in an atrocious condition. Every flat surface was covered with stacks of papers, constantly in disarray. He was occasionally late to meetings because he couldn’t find a report he needed. “If you ever stop by my office and I’m not there, just look under some papers,” he often joked to others.

Over an 18-month span, Jeremy was passed over for multiple leadership roles. He certainly had the technical knowledge as well as emerging strategic acumen and change management skills, but there was a common belief among the senior leadership team that Jeremy couldn’t be trusted with more advanced information and responsibilities. He was too nonchalant—some went so far as to call him unprofessional. There was real concern that he might mistakenly leave confidential documents somewhere or not be able to find key reports in his office.

Jeremy had heard the feedback about elevating his presence, but he disregarded it. However, once he began to realize the impact this was having on his career, he decided to make a change. He came in to his office one weekend and cleaned it. It took him 10 hours on Saturday and another seven on Sunday. He scanned and filed important documents and shredded others. He even brought in two plants to give his office some personality.

On Monday, the buzz around the office was that Jeremy had resigned. No one had ever seen his office so organized. But he showed up at 8:15 ready to work. So many colleagues stopped by those first two days that he had a hard time getting anything done. When anyone asked, he would tell them that he’d decided it was time for a new Jeremy. He referred to his previous office as belonging to his evil twin brother, which got a lot of laughs.

Promotion opportunities come around only so often. But although Jeremy had not been promoted at the time of this story, his stock had risen with the senior leadership team.

Don’t misunderstand; I am not trying to tell you that you must conform. Honestly, you need to do what you think is best. But, if you want to reach peak leadership fitness, you may need to adjust your style to that of the organization you are part of and the responsibilities you aspire to. You will absolutely have to have a solid leadership presence. I have heard from too many leaders that this is the most important area they need to work on. One of the best ways to do this if you are part of the organization is to look around at other successful, well-respected leaders. Take note of their attire and their office, and consider how you could more closely align yourself to the culture. Even in the most progressive companies that encourage and support individuality, it is important to consider the organizational context and the messages you are sending.

Zone 4: Complex Process Skills

Complex process skills include strategic thinking, problem solving, motivating and developing others, decision making, managing change, and innovation. This is all about understanding the environment your business operates in, the needs of the business, making sometimes tough decisions with limited information, and motivating others. It relies on both speed and quality of the decisions, a trait that is often developed over time and through experience. Company and team culture already exist. Your job as the leader is to operate within the existing company culture, build a strong team culture that fits within the company’s, and help reinforce the positive attributes and influence or change the culture in a positive way where necessary.

These are complex process skills because they involve reacting to a set of evolving business challenges that may not have a right or wrong answer. You must be able to flex and pivot as environmental conditions and information change. There are a lot of interconnected, systemic pieces you need to understand. You must understand the context and potential implications, as well as have insights into possible unanticipated consequences of your actions. They require you to take many factors into consideration. In fact, some of these are so important to both organizations and leaders that they are called out as separate departments. For example, many companies have an R&D department devoted to innovation and new product development. Additionally, some companies have an internal consulting department focused on change management. While this type of departmental support can provide strategic direction and thought leadership, you should not rely on another department or employee for these skills. You must develop them for yourself. You can become a leader without having achieved complex process skills, but you won’t achieve peak leadership fitness without them.

To elevate your skills, you must understand where the business is going and how you can help get it there. This is the essence of strategic acumen. Depending on your leadership level, you may also be the one determining where the business is going. Whereas the other core areas are important for the price of entry to become a leader, think about complex process skills as the differentiators. Your ability to set a clear and compelling vision, motivate others, and bring new and innovative ideas will set you apart.

Activities to Strengthen Your Core

Before getting into the activities, I would like to offer some caution.

First, be aware of the commoditization of leadership development. There are so many off-the-shelf solutions for leadership development that it is difficult to discern any real value. While there are some quality options for leadership development, many are merely solutions in search of a problem. Therefore, to avoid pursuing a check-the-box, low-impact solution, first understand what you need to focus on.

Second, be skeptical. Ask yourself how an approach will benefit you or those you lead. Consider why you should invest your time and money in that resource because, by spending it in one place, you have made the decision not to spend it somewhere else that could potentially have more impact. You may as well invest your leadership development resources in the place where you will get the greatest returns.

There are several formal, structured leadership activities you can focus on for your development. These include instructor-led classes, webinars, e-learning programs, and the emerging area of microlearning. The purpose is to provide you with a foundation of knowledge on a specific topic. The challenge for you is to balance high tech with high touch (that is, highly engaging and interactive) in a way that suits you and helps you develop the necessary skills.

Instructor-Led Classes

External leadership courses provide the opportunity to further customize your personal development path, obtain new and different perspectives on leadership, and extend your personal network. To maximize the impact, when looking at options you should consider the strengths and weaknesses you identified through an assessment, along with any of your company’s core competencies. Courses can be powerful additions to your fitness plans when done right. Important factors to consider are application, relevance, timing, and quality of instructor.

Instructor-led courses can set a foundation of concepts and be great ways to teach core skills to emerging leaders, but how they are delivered and even when they are delivered will affect your results. What makes courses powerful for reinforcing your core is that, when done right, they provide a better understanding of a specific skill (for example, finance or public speaking), along with the opportunity to apply the new knowledge.

Because anyone can claim to be an expert in leadership development or one of the related skill areas, there is a wide range for how leadership development courses are delivered. In fact, someone can have an expert level of knowledge and still not deliver a course effectively. Not all courses or instructors are created equally, so my advice is not to avoid courses altogether, but be a discerning buyer.

A potentially powerful model to look for is senior leaders within an organization who are considered experts delivering the content. Although they are often not considered expert facilitators, they bring a strong understanding of context and relevant examples that can be beneficial to participants as well as the instructors. But, while this leaders-as-teachers approach reinforces a common leadership language and helps solidify internal relationships, it falls short of introducing fresh outside perspectives.

When determining whether to invest your limited time in taking a course, you’ll want to find a high level of relevant and applied expertise in the subject matter and how it is delivered. For example, four hours of lecture will not help you retain the information. A good approach to look for is a healthy balance of introduction to the concepts, self-reflection, and the opportunity to practice the new skill, followed by feedback. This combination increases the likelihood that the new knowledge will stick.

Relevance and timeliness of the course matters a great deal. When it comes to cost-benefit of a good instructor-led course, generally the cost for courses is on the higher side—in the hundreds and sometimes even the thousands of dollars per day—because it appears as tuition. And, although the impact can vary, it is typically on the lower end of the spectrum. This is because you will not often have the opportunity to transfer the learning by immediately applying and getting feedback on what you learn. For example, one great course all emerging leaders should take is a financial acumen course. Ideally, you would have the opportunity to work with the various tools, data, and reports during the class. However, it may be weeks or even months before you can work with the tools in a live setting.

Another limitation is that the content has usually been developed for a general audience rather than your specific needs. Getting content exactly right where you need it is often difficult. Instead, you may be in a situation where it feels like the instructor is speaking another language or where you feel like you could teach the course.

When done well, courses incorporate tests. Most adults are wary of tests, but I would recommend that you embrace them. When tests are included prior to attendance, you can use them to gauge what you need to work on; when conducted afterward, you can use them to show your progress.

There are some highly transformational courses for leaders at all levels; just take the limitations and cost-benefit into consideration when developing your leadership fitness plan. And remember to be skeptical—ask lots of questions about the course content, delivery, instructor expertise, and opportunities for application and feedback. Consider these factors within the context of your personal objectives.


E-learning continues to evolve. Courses typically consist of static modules taken on your computer or device on a variety of technical and leadership courses. Modules can be built internally by your organization, or you can access one of the numerous e-learning content libraries. E-learning has become a more pervasive approach within organizations because it can be used at a relatively low cost for a wide audience. It is the quintessential commodification of learning because most organizations pay for licenses based on their size. This is akin to drinking from the trough.

E-learning can be good for compliance training, and there have been some great strides in the capabilities of e-learning programs; however, this is less about the delivery modality and more about tailoring to your needs. What’s good for the masses may not be good for you.

People have many opinions about e-learning, and many are less than positive. E-learning courses tend to check a box toward development, and only result in long-term, sustained learning when designed extremely well. While they may not be transformational by themselves, they can provide an important supplement to other existing development approaches. You may need to find your own ways of applying what you learn and getting relevant feedback. To incorporate e-learning into your fitness plan, first look for relevant topics based on your assessment and feedback. Then find a reliable source for that topic.

It is likely that e-learning will be more appropriate and relevant at more junior levels to help set a foundation. Both cost and benefit are typically low, so use this tool sparingly to avoid frustration. Look for quick targeted e-learning programs to maximize your benefits.


I consider webinars to be separate from other formal approaches, but there are some similarities. Live or recorded, webinars are designed to be short (less than two hours), small group sessions that include an overview of a topic. At their best, they also include discussion of how that topic can be applied within a specific context. They tend to be one-way communication.

However, good facilitators are increasingly finding ways to make webinars more engaging. In fact, you’ll benefit from a well-produced webinar’s open dialogue and opportunity to learn from others. One way for you to increase a webinar’s impact is for multiple colleagues to participate and then holding a follow-up discussion about how the concepts apply (or not) within your specific context. This requires some initiative and planning on your part, but is often worth the effort.

As with everything else we’ve discussed thus far, webinar quality varies, and its focus is for a general audience rather than designed specifically for you. This means that when you participate in one you’ll likely have to take in some information that isn’t relevant for your development needs.


Because microlearning both provides a sturdy foundation and builds strength and flexibility, I will touch on it here and elaborate further in the next chapter, as there are also important resources to support your development, including podcasts, huddles (short, focused stand-up meetings), and the popular TED Talk–style sessions.

Microlearning activities are a variation of other formal approaches but with one important common trait—they are short. It is the leadership fitness equivalent of eight-minute abs. They can be anywhere from two to 15 minutes long and cover a single concept at a high level. They can act as a great spark to strengthen your core and as a supplemental part of your overall leadership fitness. You will see the greatest value if you use them often and incorporate them into your routine.

Remember that one of the biggest commodities a leader has is time. Often, they simply don’t have time to invest in their leadership development. If your time is limited, consider incorporating some type of microlearning into your routine. Because it is short, you can often easily build it into your lunch break or evening—for example, listen to a podcast during your personal workout. That way you get the double benefit of strengthening your physical and leadership fitness at the same time.

Strengthening Your Core and the Cost-Benefit Matrix

Believe it or not, I do believe that there is a time and place for formal approaches to learning. I also believe that these approaches have their limitations and collectively may have some of the higher costs and lower impact of the development options available. I am just not convinced that spending an hour, a half-day, or an entire day in a classroom (which is about as much as most organizations commit to development time) is enough by itself to be transformational. Think about these activities as a way to build your base or supplement other development activities as opposed to standalone ones. One organization I worked with even offered their leaders a full week of training. Although that showed promise and was transformational for some, it’s the exception.

One of the primary reasons for this is that for leadership to be transformational, it must include three elements: introduction of a new concept, opportunity to practice the new skill, and feedback for participants. This is similar to the medical profession’s traditional teaching approach for new surgeons: “See one, do one, teach one.”

In the cost-benefit matrix, courses fall into the first quadrant (high cost, low impact; Figure 5-3). They tend to be higher cost relative to other development options. And while they have some potential benefit, there are too many variables to make this a dependable option. When it comes to the value of courses, too often the subject matter is not immediately applicable. If the course could be highly engaging and tailored to each leader’s needs, it would move up on the benefit axis.

The other formal approaches—webinars, e-learning, and microlearning—fall into the fourth quadrant (low cost, low impact). While they all tend to be lower in cost, their quality is inconsistent, and more important, their overall benefit is fairly low. The best option of the bunch is the potential shown by microlearning. However, even those benefits are enhanced only when you incorporate them regularly into your leadership fitness routine. Although each element has a place in the cost-benefit matrix, the various formal activities should be viewed as part of a comprehensive leadership fitness plan.

Figure 5-3. Cost-Benefit Matrix

An example of a second-quadrant activity (high cost, high impact) would be professional coaches. A third-quadrant activity (low cost, high impact) would be mentoring from someone in your organization or professional association. These types of activities are explored further in the next chapter.

Tracking Your Performance

Leadership is complex—no doubt about it. There are certain skills that all leaders must focus on, and if it feels like there are a lot, it is because there are. When you can combine credibility (technical skills) and likeability (interpersonal skills), you are on your way to building a strong core. You also need to be able to solve complex business challenges and get the job done effectively. When you work on the entirety of your core, you are more likely to move toward peak leadership fitness.

Keep all the core skills in mind. I know it’s a lot, but remember, you don’t have to be an expert at everything, and you don’t need to develop them all through these approaches. But to build a solid foundation of knowledge, you should spend more time building your core through formal activities early in your career.

You’ll need to build some of the more complex skills over time and through experience. That does not mean more senior leaders should never take a class. It simply means that once you have a strong core in place, focus on maintaining your core through periodic formal updates while placing the bulk of your efforts around informal, day-to-day activities. The next chapter goes into greater depth with this approach and how you can best incorporate collaborative, on-the-job, and resource-based activities into your leadership fitness routine.

Fitness Tips to Strengthen Your Core

If someone tells you to work on your leadership skills, ask for specificity.

Although all leaders need to continue to strengthen their core, those earlier in their career should spend more time in this area.

Effort trumps ability, but you should make every effort to combine effort and ability.

Never take a leadership course on something that you will not have the opportunity to put into practice in the very near term.

Find activities that help you build or reinforce your core on a daily or weekly basis to stay current in key areas.

Immediately following every formal leadership development activity you participate in, write down two to three of the best ideas you learned and how you will incorporate them into your routine.