If you are familiar with my writing on leadership, you know that I put a great deal of emphasis on the mindset and behavior of leaders as the key elements in creating a High Commitment Culture. There is, however, one other even more foundational factor, without which it is impossible for any leader to effectively lead, no matter how enlightened or empowering they may be. That one foundational element, upon which all else rests, is the leader’s own physical health and fitness.
Now, I realize that may come as a shock to many, simply because of just how underwhelming and “boring” it sounds. Unlike most “leadership secrets,” this one is not a secret. In fact, it is so obvious that most of us completely ignore it in the context of leadership, which is exactly why highlighting it is so important. As Dr. Stephen R. Covey reminds us in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “sharpening the saw,” i.e. continually improving ourselves physically, mentally, spiritually, and socio-emotionally, is a practice that we must be engaged in constantly, lest we starve the goose that lays the golden eggs.
As I write this post, I am reminded of a plant manager that I worked with a few years ago who was one of the most empowering leaders that I have ever seen. I had the pleasure of visiting his plant and working with him and his leadership team on a regular basis for a couple of years, and I was always impressed with the spirit of servant leadership he role-modeled for, and expected from, his people. Unfortunately, this great leader battled several chronic health issues. The severe obesity and the associated physical limitations he suffered from prevented him from walking around his plant and speaking to the people as effectively as I am sure he would have loved to do. His health had deteriorated to the point that he could hardly walk much at all, and he relied on a scooter to get around the plant. Eventually, I’m sorry to say, he passed way too soon due to complications of the conditions he suffered from.
This was certainly a sad occurrence for his family, but his passing also left a considerable void in the organization that had grown accustomed to his compassionate, yet courageous style of leadership. I am 100% sure that the many contributions he was yet to make in the lives of so many people in the coming years would have made a ton of difference, if only he had been given the opportunity to improve and preserve his health and vitality.
Now, before I continue, I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am not equating being unhealthy with being a bad person, whether one’s lack of health is thought to be “one’s own fault” or not. Being unhealthy is not a moral failing, nor is an unhealthy person ever solely responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. This is because the decision of whether and how to address one’s personal health is not always clear, as one may have never been taught—by one’s family or by society—exactly why or even how to eat right and exercise regularly. Even those who decide that they want to take care of their health have to deal with confusing guidelines from competing industries more interested in our money than our health, and a medical establishment that is better equipped to fight disease rather than prevent it in the first place. What this all boils down to is that, more often than not, people simply just don’t know how to be healthy, through no fault of their own; no one can ever make a choice if they don’t know it exists. Even when they do know, they get little to no support—even sometimes opposition—because those around them are as oblivious as everyone else. With that said, while health is not a moral issue, it is a functional issue. As such, insofar that leaders are defined as those upon whom others depend for guidance and support, all leaders must seriously examine where they stand when it comes to their personal health as it relates to their ability to function effectively as leaders.
Chances are that those of us who are not living with conspicuous chronic health conditions don’t really think that something like what happened to that plant manager could ever happen to us, but the staggering statistics relative to the growing rate of obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, etc., indicate that our leading causes of death and disability are mostly inconspicuous. This suggests that, given our lifestyle choices, many of us severely underestimate our risk for developing these health issues because they can rarely be seen or felt until years or decades after they have established themselves. Regardless of how we might feel at the moment, life is an iterative, cumulative process, and the small things we do add up over time until they reach a point from which it is very difficult to return; consider that the first symptom of coronary heart disease for a little over half of those who suffer from it is just literally dying without warning.
Unfortunately, what we refer to as the healthcare system cannot be counted on as a solution, whether you believe in the current system or prefer a more naturopathic one, simply because no system can take the place of people taking personal responsibility for their own health. Most of the healthcare debates in the U.S. are about change, rather than transformation; they are focused more on how we ought to treat the sick—a necessary and important inquiry in its own right—as opposed to how we ought to prevent disease and promote health in the first place. The norm has become one of taking drugs to treat our symptoms only to experience side effects that require more drugs, all the while being told that there is no alternative when it comes to treating our obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Our doctors receive practically no education in nutrition—very strange considering that the greatest risk factor for death and disability in the United States is diet (Figure 3)—and consequently can do little to support their patients when it comes to making diet and lifestyle choices that would benefit them.
Just as in every other aspect of leadership, it is incumbent upon each leader to start with themselves and take responsibility for their health and vitality by proactively seeking out ways to improve it, thereby subsequently influencing others around them to do the same. Despite the somewhat obvious nature of such an intervention, however, most of us are not doing it. Instead, we are just hoping that against all odds, and contrary to the physical laws of reality, nothing bad will happen to us, just because. This is, obviously, nothing more than wishful thinking. Of course, this is kind of like relying on lottery tickets to fund your retirement plan, except that in that case, at least you’re the only one who would suffer as a result of your imprudence. The fact is, the laws of nature don’t care whether you are a great leader or the world’s worst boss, the rules—of gravity, of thermodynamics, of nutrition and exercise—apply to everyone just the same. While we subconsciously entertain notions that we are a special case or somehow exempt, there is nothing more ordinary than thinking you are the one exception to the rule. And nothing causes more needless suffering than refusing to let go of that mistaken belief.
Going back to the importance of health in the workplace, a few years ago, I led a plant where a great number of our team members had significant health issues, among other problems. Seeing this, my wife and I set out to support my teammates by teaching them about the benefits of choosing certain diets and lifestyles over others, relative to their physical and mental wellbeing. My wife would show videos and serve healthy, homemade meals to anybody who was willing to listen. She volunteered and held countless 1-1 coaching sessions for employees and their family members in an attempt to educate and influence people to take responsibility for their health. As a result, several people experienced transformations in the area of their personal wellbeing and went on to adopt healthier lifestyles that will be a gift that will keep on giving for years to come. Since then, my family and I have dedicated a good portion of our time and energy to educating and coaching others who express interest in the same topics.
With all that said, my question and challenge to you is whether you are “fit to lead.” Are you making deliberate choices in your health and fitness that are based on information that you consider to be sound and credible, or are you just going with the flow and hoping that health issues don’t creep up on you.
This is a topic which is much easier to avoid than to deal with head on. This is especially true if you suspect that you haven’t really been doing the right things, and you’d prefer to look the other way rather than try to figure out whose advice to listen to and where to start. You may even think it is “too late” for anything to be done. If that’s you, I’d urge you to start, and start where you are. As long as you are still breathing, it is never too late to make a change. You don’t have to do anything radical. You can start small and begin to do a little research. You don’t have to get out and run a marathon tomorrow, but do start taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking further from the store instead of as close as you can get. You don’t have to adopt a strict diet, but begin to cut back on some of the things that you suspect may not be good for your health.
So, if you are feeling condemned by reading this post, please know that the intention is not to condemn you, but to compel you to take action, for your own sake and for the sake of those who depend on your for support and guidance at work or at home. The key is to get in action and stay in action at your own pace, and to stay focused on how much you have accomplished as opposed to how much further you have to go. Leaders understand that their setbacks can never be used as a reason to give up, and it is no different whether they are committed to transforming their community or transforming their personal health.
My family and I at The Ghannad Group have made several interventions that I’d like to share with you in hopes that you will be inspired to begin to take some baby steps if you aren’t doing so already. I am not suggesting that we have it all figured out and we are perfect at executing our system, I am just hoping to point out that perfect is the enemy of good, and you don’t have to be perfect to start making progress.
Here is what we have done:
We have been vegan for over 18 years and, aside from animal products, we avoid the consumption of the so called “food products” that look, smell, and taste great but are not what the body would recognize as optimal fuel to keep itself running. You may not agree with our choice of diet and I fully respect that. My intent is not that you should choose one diet over another, but rather that you honestly examine what and how you are eating and educate yourself about the impacts it may be having on risk factors for various diseases. The change we made to our diet resulted in significant health improvements for us, but you may choose to pursue a completely different route to restoring your health. Whatever you do, I’d urge you to do your own research and be intentional about choosing what fuel you put in your body, rather than letting food corporations choose what’s best for you, based on what’s best for their shareholders.
(For those who are interested in exploring different diets out there, here a few to check out on your own: Whole Foods Plant-Based/WFPB, Mediterranean, Paleo/Primal, Blue Zones, Nutritarian/Nutrient Dense, Healing Foods. You may also want to check out Michael Pollan’s books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules).
We make it a point to exercise regularly. We fall of the wagon from time to time and we are not perfect in following our plan but when we do, we encourage each other and make it a point to get back to it. Right now, we are doing P90X, which is very demanding, but we go at our own pace and we have already seen significant improvements since we started a few weeks ago. However, don’t think that you have to go sign up for CrossFit to improve your health; intense exercise actually appears to be less important than simply spending a greater proportion of your day moving as opposed to sitting. Speaking of sitting, it is considered to be comparable to smoking in terms of its negative health effects, and we realize that, like most people, we spend most of our time sitting down to work or watch TV or use our computers, etc. To counteract this, we retrofitted one of our treadmills into a desk, complete with a keyboard and mouse and speakers, and most days when I work from my home office, instead of sitting at my desk, I do my work while walking on the treadmill, albeit very slowly. This usually means that I walk 14-16k steps every day, which, apparently may be as effective as some drugs in treating risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
I realize that not everyone can do what we have done, and that finding the right exercise program can be daunting for many, but what I want to emphasize is this: start doing something right now, even while you are figuring out what works best for you. You might be surprised about what actually counts as exercise in terms of improving your health and fitness, so if all you can do is add a 30 minute walk to your daily schedule, you are on the right track.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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