The field exercise was drawing to a close. I had lost lots of sleep keeping up with the demands of my new position. I was dragging and making mistakes. Mid-morning my boss pulls me aside and asks, “What is going on with you today?” In a gruff voice, he began listing all the mistakes I made so far.
“I am beat and having a bad morning,” I replied. He stared at me, arms crossed, brow furrowed. He was not happy.
“You’re a senior leader now! You can’t have bad days. Even in training, when you have a bad day; people could die!” He was right. We launched bullets a dozen or more miles down range. A small error made the difference between hitting the target or the projectile landing outside the impact area potentially killing or injuring others.
The boss directed me to go back to my area, clean up, eat, catch a nap and then meet him at the command post in an hour. We met at the command post and he spend the next hour telling all the little tricks that allowed him to succeed as a senior leader. He showed the systems he used to keep track of people and property. He told me about the importance of catching cat naps. He shared that when he had my job, checking the perimeter was about more than checking on security; it provided him daily exercise. He opened a green notebook revealing daily entries he said were his reflections on his past performance and adherence to values so he could identify and learn from his mistakes. I learned a lot that morning. Leaders cannot have bad days.
As we wrapped up the hour, he shared a story his father told him. His father was a logger back in the days before skidders and chainsaws. His father started every morning sharpening his saw. That meant to start cutting on time, he had to wake up a bit earlier. There were some men in the crew who would not sharpen their saws daily. They ended up worker later into the day to cut their quota of wood. Because his father sharpened his saw everyday, he was able to cut trees faster than the men who would not. He would finish before them and have time to attend to other matters which allowed him to crawl into the sack a little earlier. He received plenty of sleep each night even though he woke early. He was able to slow down a little bit just because he sharpened his saw.
There is an old maxim that it is lonely at the top. Leaders often shield their followers from certain unpleasantries in order to maintain high morale. It is not that they hide bad things from them. It is more that the Good Idea Fairy stopped by corporate headquarters, sprinkled some Good Idea Dust on the CEO, then left the building. The CEO had a GREAT idea that really was not so great. Other senior leaders stopped the Good Idea before any damage was done. Yet they cannot share their hard-earned victory news with their followers because it will cause more problems by doing so. There are plenty of other battles leaders fight to protect their followers that only they know about. As with any warrior, failing to recognize the stress that accumulates in these battles creates problems. Leaders need to learn how to create and develop resilience by maximizing their whole person fitness.
Let us start with the concept of whole person fitness. We all know about the importance of physical fitness. People measure their physical fitness by watching what they eat and monitoring and engaging in physical activities. Whole person fitness however can be defined in four dimensions, physical, emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual. Leaders need to be healthy in all four areas to sustain the resilience required to lead others.
I am NOT an exercise or nutrition expert. If you are having health issues, consult your primary care provider. You should also consult with an appropriate professional before engaging in any major changes in your diet or exercise. The examples discussed here are only intended to propose possible answers to apply the basic principles introduced here.
Diet and exercise are the two foundational actions regarding physical fitness. It is important to eat well and exercise often for a given amount of time. There are untold numbers of books regarding both topics. Many require extreme actions. I suggest that diets and exercise programs that encourage extreme changes in behavior such as eating 52 pounds of raw beef daily or running a marathon every morning and evening probably will cause more harm than good and simply will not work for most people. There are some general rules that have demonstrated success for many people. In the nutrition realm, eating more fresh vegetables and lean meats instead of fats, starches, and processed foods.
Likewise in exercise, walk more; sit less. Many studies show most people require 150 to 200 minutes per week of moderate exercise. Consider a variety of activities that strengthen your muscles, increase your endurance and aerobic fitness, and flexibility. An example of an easy yet effect exercise regimen might look like 15-20 minutes of walking at a fast pace (fast for you), 5-10 minutes of stretching, and about 10 minutes of some sort of strength exercises each day. That works out to about 30 minutes. Do that six times each week and you have 150 minutes.
Emotional Fitness is demonstrated by the ability to deal with problems in a positive, optimistic fashion. You demonstrate self-control in the face of adversity. Your stamina allows you to think well and make good decisions which creates quality character.
Emotional fitness relies on having a steady mind and spirit. Both factors are other facets of fitness. Sleeping, exercising, and reflecting on the greater good all help achieve a level of emotional fitness. Both facets allow you to effectively evaluate your performance. You identify successes and failures which allow you to devise methods to improve. With greater emotional fitness comes the calmness envied by others seen in good leaders during a crisis.
Interpersonal fitness is sometimes called emotional intelligence or emotional quotient, EQ. EQ is the measure of how well a person can gauge and respond to the feelings and needs of others. In order to be influential as a leader, you need to understand other people and their emotions. This provides you power to select the right tools of influence to provide appropriate motivation, direction, and purpose.
People follow leaders they like and respect. I know many leaders, including myself, that have said silly things like, “I don’t care if they like me so long as the do what I tell them.” That kind of supervision is not leadership. You can supervise that way for a time but even in the military, people abandon those types. Military members eventually reach the end of their contract and just like in the rest of the world, if they do not like their bosses, they leave the job. Building relationships with others helps you become a better leader and reduces the loneliness at the top.
One can be a regular church goer and still have poor spiritual fitness. Spiritual fitness involves much more than attending regular religious services. There are plenty of people who never attend services yet experience a rich spiritual life.
Spiritual fitness is all about understanding the things you value. Take time to examine the roots of those values. Learn why those values are important to you. Figure out what areas you claim to value yet act against that value. An important part of spirituality is understanding there is more to the world, more to life than just you. Those who are spiritually fit know with every action they take and every word they speak makes a difference in the worlds of others. They choose to make a positive difference.
A few years after that bad day in the field, I was leading Soldiers in combat. We did have bad days. By then, I started using some of the ways to control those days better. My bad days were those that despite my best efforts to accomplish any number of missions we were given without injuring my Soldiers or the civilians we encountered, people did get hurt and did die. We were expected by both our military and our enemy to perform at high levels everyday and we did. There were days I had time enough to only sharpen a few teeth on the saw. However I pulled out the file any time there was an opportunity to sharpen even one tooth on days like that. As a result, we succeed, not because of any one thing I did. No we succeeded because those who followed me accepted our unified purpose, accepted my directions, and remained motivated.
Keeping your saw sharp as a leader can mean the difference between success and failure. With a sharp saw you have the ability to work faster and accomplish more with less effort. There may be days that taking time to exercise, eat well, consider your values and actions, or build your relationships seems like a waste of time. Those are the days that those activities are the most important. Develop strategies to accomplish each of these important tasks regularly and your will find you are a more effective leader.
Covey, S. (2004) 7 habits of highly effective people.Simon & Schuster. New York, NY.
Love, S. (July 14, 2009) Comprehensive soldier fitness. U.S. Army. Washington DC. Retrieved from https://www.usar.army.mil/CSF/
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(c) 2021 Christopher St. Cyr