Fit to Be a Leader

Can a rigorous workout routine help your professional communication skills? It works for politicians and executives; it can work for you

Recently a national newspaper contacted me for some insight into a story on Condoleezza Rice and her rigorous fitness schedule. Wherever she travels around the world, the U.S. Secretary of State gets up at 4:30 a.m. to work out for 40 minutes. Their question for me: Is this a secret behind her success?

My answer is yes -- to the degree that successful leadership requires high energy, creativity, clear thinking, and good posture. Rice is one of the most powerful women in the world. Her travel schedule would beat down the best of us, yet she finds time for vigorous exercise.

Thinking about Condi reminds me of another charismatic and influential leader I had the pleasure of covering for CBS -- California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The man who runs the world's fifth largest economy finds time to spend 45 minutes on cardio exercises in the morning and another 30 minutes with weights later in the day.


  What does this have to do with professional communications? Plenty. When you're speaking to a customer, employee, investor, or prospect, how you look, feel, act, and sound all help you connect with the people listening to you. Leaders who are physically fit exude far more energy than their peers. One of Schwarzenegger's key staffers once told me his boss had more energy than everyone else. Make no mistake -- it matters.

One morning, Schwarzenegger returned to California from a four-day trip to the Middle East. He arrived at 5 a.m., in time for a breakfast speech to the California Chamber of Commerce. Journalists and business professionals in the audience were impressed with Schwarzenegger's energy. The governor looked energetic, youthful, and as refreshed as ever. Schwarzenegger once said, "I never run out of energy!" It pays to work out.

The other week I spoke with the general manager of Hersheypark Entertainment, who oversees a sprawling complex made up of an amusement park, a zoo, arenas, and hotels in Hershey, Pa. O'Connell had quite an eye-opening experience last year after he returned from a leadership course. As part of the program, his employees were asked to fill out a survey about their boss.


  O'Connell scored very high on all attributes of leadership -- except for one. His employees thought O'Connell lacked energy, and it altered their perception of him. They were right. O'Connell was more than 40 pounds overweight. The amusement park's perimeter is 11 miles, and he often had to take rests while showing people around.

O'Connell, who is a young man with high expectations for his professional career, thought if his employees said he lacked energy, what did his superiors think of him? "I had been pouring 150% of my energy into one aspect of my life," he said. But everything changed once O'Connell began to focus on an aspect of his life he had neglected: physical fitness.

O'Connell immediately began working out one hour a day, seven days a week. Less than a year later the transformation is dramatic. He dropped 35 pounds and wants to lose another 15. His cholesterol and blood pressure, previously on the high side, also dropped dramatically. "I have a boatload of energy," he says now. "I'm happier with myself and it has had a positive impact on the folks I interact with. I'm a different guy, and people see it."


  O'Connell now sets the example for others. Candy and junk food are largely gone from the company cafeteria, and people are seen jogging and exercising far more. Instead of having to stop and rest on those 11-mile walks around the amusement park, O'Connell now sets the pace!

For Arnold, Condi, and O'Connell, exercise is what makes them pacesetters. They are fitter than average. And it is critical to their dazzling communication skills: They look better, they have better posture, they exude unwavering confidence and optimism, and they have far more energy than everyone else in the room. Other well-known business fitness buffs include Tom Monaghan, Domino's Pizza (DPZ) founder; Larry Ellison, Oracle (ORCL) CEO; Klaus Kleinfeld, Siemens (SI) CEO; and Richard Branson, Virgin (VGMHF) founder.

When it comes to public appearances, there is a big difference between fit leaders and out of shape ones. The former have more energy, enthusiasm, passion, and confidence. They also have better posture, which makes them look and feel better. They smile more. They radiate leadership. Due to their demanding roles and travel schedule, they can not afford not to exercise. Neither can you.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.