Let Them See You Sweat – Leaders who exercise make their whole teams healthier

So much has been written about the importance of regular exercise for one’s own physical and mental health, you’d have to be living under a rock not to recognize the benefits. And yet—some of us still struggle to commit to a regular exercise routine. Maybe we’re prioritizing other commitments. Or we’re just so stressed and exhausted it feels better (and easier) to relax on the couch with a glass of wine. Excuses are all too easy to come by. Early on in my career in the food industry, I was committed to acquiring as much product knowledge as possible. It’s what good leaders do! But the more “experience” I gained, the more weight I gained with it—and the worse I felt. Not only were my suit trousers too tight, but my energy and mood suffered. I knew I had to get my body back in balance, not just for my physical health, but for my mental health as well. By committing to a regular exercise routine, I was able to lose 25 pounds and keep it off. While I did it to keep my own physical and mental health in check, I’ve since come to realize what a powerful impact a leader’s routine can have on their team’s performance. Sweat, it turns out, is an essential tool of the leadership trade.

Move your body, boost their mood. 

When you’re a leader, people watch your every move, and your every mood. I know the more I move, the better my mood is—and the easier it is for people to be around me (just ask my wife and daughter). I find that with regular exercise I not only have more energy, but I’m more relaxed and open, more patient, and more receptive to new ideas. In a business that lives and dies by new ideas, that’s a big deal! Dr. Larry Senn, who some call the “father of corporate culture," created a visualization tool I love called The Mood Elevator  to help leaders become more aware of their moods and how they impact the people around them. Monitoring where you are on the mood elevator can keep you from plummeting into the danger zone where interpersonal struggles and poor decision making happen. While Senn offers lots of ways to “move up the mood elevator”, one of the simplest, he says, is taking care of yourself through regular exercise, something he—as a 50-time triathlete since the age of 70—knows a good bit about. You don’t have to complete a triathlon to ride the elevator up one “floor” from “impatient and frustrated” to “curious and interested.” A quick walk around the block and some deep breathing will often do the trick. And a daily exercise routine will help keep you in the elevator sweet zone, with fewer ups and downs.

Your mood at work casts a shadow that colors the lives of everyone around you, and when you’re in a position of authority, it’s your responsibility to cast a shadow of positivity and openness. The mood boost you get from your daily workout isn’t just for you; it sets the tone for everyone. And your team will thank you for it with increased productivity and cooperation.

Sleep so your team feels safer. 

Something else your team will thank you for? Getting a good night’s sleep. Science shows that regular exercise leads to better sleep, and better sleep leads to improved cognitive function. But did you know that the quality of a leader’s sleep on any given night has a measurable impact on their team the next day? Earlier this year I interviewed Will Ahmed, CEO of Whoop, the $3.6 billion wearable technology company that uses data to optimize human performance and health. Will hosts a podcast too, and in a recent episode, Whoop’s VP of Performance Kristen Holmes sat down with three researchers to talk about a fascinating study that shows the link between a leader’s sleep and the psychological safety reported by their teams. Elite leaders know psychological safety is essential to team performance. When someone feels safe psychologically, they feel comfortable sharing an idea, expressing a dissenting opinion, or asking for help. In the study discussed on Whoop’s podcast, elite leaders were asked to nominate 3-5 of their closest direct reports, who then completed psychological safety surveys throughout the week. On days when a leader was experiencing greater sleep debt (as measured by their Whoop device) the subordinates who met with them reported lower levels of psychological safety. And this was without knowing their leader was sleep deprived. When you think about what opinions or ideas were held back on those days—or what problems might have remained hidden—you can see the profound impact your physical health can have on company performance.

Your workouts send a strong signal.

There’s a reason I called this article “Let Them See You Sweat”, and it’s not because I want you to come to work in your gym clothes or join a Zoom call from the treadmill. I do, however, think it’s important for teams to see their leaders modeling work/life balance. And exercise is a big part of that. The Center for Creative Leadership reports that “leaders who exercise regularly were rated significantly higher by their bosses, peers, and direct reports on their leadership effectiveness.”  A commitment to regular exercise not only shows your team you have discipline and that you value the mind-body connection, it sends a strong signal that you believe in balance, not burnout. Leaders who burn the candle at both ends or brag “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” aren’t doing themselves or their teams any favors. Especially now, when hybrid work is blurring the lines between home and office, teams need to see leaders taking time for themselves so they can feel permission to do the same.

I exercise in my home gym every morning to get my body moving and my head on straight. I think about what I want to accomplish—and I set my intentions for the day. By and large, I don’t let meetings override that time, not because that time is mine and mine alone, but because I know its impact will be felt by everyone.

What do you think? Does it help you to frame fitness as a leadership tool? What are some other ways working out makes you more fit to lead? 

July 5, 2022