Are you fit to lead?

Want me to let you in on a little known secret? The most important driver of how well you lead isn't your brain, your intelligence, your charisma or your years of experience.

Sorry to disappoint. But the biggest impact on your ability to lead is your physical health and fitness.

This is because leadership requires large amounts of concentration, energy and focus. You simply can't handle this load without expanding your physical fitness. And it isn't just about looking good in a pair of budgie smugglers at Bondi Beach or parading around in your Tom Ford suit.

Too much food, alcohol and not enough time getting off your backside and moving results in decreased energy levels, reduced concentration and excessive weight gain over a period of time.

In simple terms: If you are over-weight, over-stressed or over-fed - you're just not going to be performing anywhere near your peak.

I've lost count of the times I've had conversations with my corporate clients about the importance of looking after themselves when they're on the road or at corporate functions. A particular bugbear is those (mainly) male corporate workers that spend a lot of time in airport lounges drinking all the booze and chomping through the entire buffet. Remember lads, the beers are there to share with everyone. They're not all yours!

Fit or fat?

These corporate workers tend to fall into one of two categories – fit or fat, and there appears to be no middle ground.

To find out which category you fall into, when you next take off all of your clothes before jumping into the shower, I want you to stand in front of the mirror (naked) and jump up and down, as high as you can, 10 times. When you anchor your feet back on the ground if your body is still moving up and down, well, um, there's your answer…

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Science agrees

For the skeptics among you, the science backs up what I've seen over nearly 20 years in the trenches.

Researchers at the Centre for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs studied 600 senior level executives to observe the correlation between physical activity levels and leadership performance.

They found fit executives outperformed unfit executives due to an improved ability to cope with grueling work and travel schedules.

Fit executives were also better at daily task activities and were perceived by their subordinates, bosses and peers as better leaders than non-exercisers. The fit executives also scored better in a range of leadership skills including ambition, attracting talent, visionary thinking, global perspective, risk taking and influencing.

The researchers deduced physical exercise reduces psychological stress by acting as a mental diversion and as a release or outlet for emotional and physical tension and enhances mood and levels of optimism that serves to regulate emotions and improve problem-solving abilities.

Lazy perceptions

Perception and leadership are also shown to go hand in hand. A paper published in the Obesity iournal in 2009 reported that employees equated a number of negative attributes with overweight leaders: lazy, unmotivated, lacking in self-discipline, less competent, and sloppy, were some of the labels that came up.

Other studies have also found links between physical activity and neurocognitive performance (thinking skills).

Regular aerobic activity was is known to improve attention; speed of information processing; and executive functioning – which are the skills responsible for planning, initiation, sequencing and monitoring of complex, goal-directed behaviors. Resistance training showed a positive impact on working memory which gives you the short-term ability to switch between tasks. All tasks crucial to the jobs of leaders.

Getting into shape

❏ Don't give up exercising 'for the sake of the job'. Maintaining a regular fitness program helps executives and senior managers to sustain the vigor necessary to meet the demands of the job and raise the perception of leadership effectiveness in the eyes of their subordinates.

❏We need both kinds of exercise. Aerobic exercise (the huff and puff) boosts our attention, information processing and executive functioning (increased volume of the Hippocampus) and resistance training (the buff) helps to improve our working memory (impact on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).

❏ Get off your backside every 60 to 90 minutes and build strategic movement into your day.

❏ Grab your diary right now and lock in 3 planned activity sessions a week! If it's not in your diary it just won't happen.

❏ To optimise your training you need to find a balance between aerobic exercise (huff and puff), strength training (the buff) and flexibility (to ensure that when you cross your legs your jaw doesn't snap open).

❏ If you don't like going to the gym – don't! The key to life-long fitness is to engage in activities you like (or at least hate less). Buy a dog, get a bike, paddle on the harbour or play tennis with the kids or kick a footy with a few mates at lunchtime.

Andrew May is a performance coach specialising in leadership in the office and on the sporting field.

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