Did you know that regular exercise correlates with higher leadership skills ratings in senior-level executives?

Yep. According to the Journal of Managerial Psychology, executives that exercise regularly were rated significantly higher as leaders than executives who didn’t make a habit of working out.

The purpose of the research was to determine how regular exercise impacted leadership scores on two multi-rater leadership assessment instruments – the Executive Success Profile® (ESP) and the Campbell Leadership IndexTM (CLI).

The results indicated that engaging in regular exercise is positively correlated with how others rated executives on various leadership indices!

If better leadership equals better results, investing in fitness seems like a wise move for those who manage and supervise others.

As a young supervisor, I quickly gained weight as I neglected my diet, barely exercised, and drank more beer than water on the weekends. As the pounds added up, I started noticing that I was tired all the time, and as my waist size increased, my self-confidence decreased.

As most male supervisors, I covered up about this with over confidence.  I was a “high-potential” employee heading up a new and exciting operation, “on-the road” all the time.

The truth was that every morning I lifted my shirt, stared at the mirror, and was depressed when I saw how big I was getting.

The turning point for me was when I made up an excuse to not meet my friends at the beach over the weekend because I was too ashamed to take my shirt off in front of them.

Growing up in the islands, I loved the beach. When I heard myself making up an excuse not to go to a place I dearly loved, I knew I had to change.

I started playing tennis and eventually got into bodybuilding when I moved to cold and beach-less Ithaca, New York.

Over the years, here are the most significant ways that exercise has helped the quality of my leadership skills.

1. Exercise is Good for My Brain

A recent study from Penn State found that those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.

2. Exercise Clears My Mind and Makes Me Happy

This not only happens to me, but to all my workout partners.

Once we are in a routine and we know what we are doing, our workouts become a way for us to deal with our frustrations and help us think clearly about the issues or obstacles we are dealing with in our lives.

Leo Widrich wrote a great article on what happens when we start exercising.  Your brain recognizes it as a moment of stress and as your heart pressure increases, your brain thinks you are facing an enemy or fleeing from danger.

To protect yourself, you release a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF.

This BDNF has a protective and also a repair element to your memory neurons, and acts as a reset switch. This totally explains why my me and my workout partner feel so at ease and have a much clearer understanding of what we need to do to deal with our obstacles and challenges after exercising.

While this is happening, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain.

According to researcher MK McGovern:

“These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.”

This explains why I feel so much happier after a good workout.

3. Exercise Inspires Me and Others

As a leadership consultant, I advise my clients to get out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves.  Exercising and being healthy have enabled me to “walk the walk” and consistently get out of my own comfort zone.

Related:  Leadership Skills #1: Great Leaders are Trustworthy

There are many options for challenging ourselves like running marathons,  or competing in triathlons or extreme races. For me, the ultimate challenge was to become a competitive bodybuilder.

As soon as my friends and coworkers noticed the changes in the way I looked, the questions and requests for advice started.

Over the years I have helped many friends and co-workers with advice based on what I have learned. But one young man took me on a journey that not only changed his life, it changed mine.

Practice Your Leadership Skills at the Gym

On a Sunday morning, I was working out with a competitive bodybuilder, when a courageous 18 year old came up to us and said, “I don’t know what I am doing, can you guys help me out?”

That young man was Shayne Miller, who at 18 years of age, was tipping the scales at 250 pounds and 5 foot 7.

That day began a 4 year journey that not only gave me the opportunity to help Shayne become a healthy and self-confident young man, it allowed me to practice my leadership skills in a completely new environment and become a better leader.

Day in and day out, I built trust with Shayne as we envisioned ourselves on stage. I listened and learned about him as a person. I sought out his strengths and started focusing on those, instead of the weaknesses.

Most importantly, I found ways to have him be comfortable taking risks and conquer his fears.

The vision of him and I on stage together became our guiding light. Paving the way for him to become a competitor gave me the last ounce of courage to get my own butt on stage.

You see up to that point, I kept finding excuses not to compete and that was my main goal at the time. Truth is, I was afraid.

I knew that getting on stage was almost impossible in Shayne’s mind, so I competed first, while he coached me from the crowd. Shayne was on stage with me 6 months later.

Today, Shayne is a healthy and confident young man who is an inspiration to everyone he meets. We have done presentations on fitness, and he helps others become healthy and maintain healthy lifestyles.

Challenge Yourself

I realize that not everyone will want to become a bodybuilder or have the chance to meet someone like Shayne, but that is not the point. The point is that by challenging ourselves and making a focused effort to have a more efficient brain and healthier body, we will become better leaders.

Research shows that managers who exercise are better leaders and we have scientific evidence as to why exercise help us think clearly, remember more details, and feel happier.

In addition, we can set the example for others who may be inspired by the way we are challenging ourselves.

While not everyone will have a Shayne in their lives, it is safe to assume that people will ask for help and advice once you develop a routine and system that works.

By exercising and being healthy, we can help others by helping ourselves first.

Helping others is what leadership is all about isn’t it?

It’s Your Turn

  • Have you ever felt happy after a workout?
  • Do you know others that have transformed their lives with exercise?
  • Do you know others that are helping those in need become healthy?  If you, do you think these folks should be considered leaders?

How Does Exercise Help Your Leadership Skills?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.
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