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Why leaders should be fit for the job

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Executive coaches argue that for bosses to achieve peak performance, their physical fitness must be part of the package

If you ask for a list of desirable attributes for an ideal leader, physical fitness is probably the last thing on anyone's mind.

More often than not, employees tend to look for qualities such as flexibility and stability - all traits related to one's mental or emotional state.

But to achieve peak performance, the physical component - often overlooked - must also be part of the equation, said co-authors Marcus and Sari Marsden.

The Marsdens are a husband-and-wife-team who co-founded Sarius Performance International, a consultancy that combines executive coaching with fitness and nutrition.

In their new book titled Fit To Lead, the executive coaches offer an alternative perspective on leadership that integrates all three aspects - the heart, mind and body - for maximum impact.

Mr Marsden explained: "In the past, leadership was about what you knew. But by the late 1990s, it changed from thinking to feeling. It became about emotional intelligence or how you felt at work.

"I am firmly convinced that in five years' time, talking about one's body or physical state will become mainstream in the workplace."

I am firmly convinced that in five years' time, talking about one's body or physical state will become mainstream in the workplace. Mr Marcus Marsden

Paying attention to the physical state does not imply that leaders need to start pumping iron or practising yoga (even if these are worthy pursuits) to be at the top of their game.

Mrs Marsden said: "Exercise is optional but movement is fundamental. We are born to move."

Accordingly, it is about moving purposefully and regarding the body as a place to learn about one's mental and emotional state.

Simply put, Mr Marsden said there is "nothing magic" about movement.

"The magic occurs when you are conscious about the movement."

When he left marketing after 15 years to move into an executive coaching role, he realised that he had to build visibility for impact. He had to go on stage and push himself to be as energetic as possible for an hour, and then he could relax.

He didn't realise it at that time, but it was "interval training at work", said Mr Marsden.

Another example of this conscious movement is strength training. Mrs Marsden pointed out that developing strength through weights and resistance builds the capacity to persevere mentally and emotionally.

"In the office, you face a lot of external forces that will oppose you. Just like in strength training, if you are conscious about what you are doing, you will be able to push back and keep going no matter what."

It is not just specific physical movements that impact our behaviour in the workplace.

Mrs Marsden has observed among her clients that they do not know the value of rest and recovery.

"They just want a non-stop hard workout without thinking of their capacity to recover. In this busy world, it is not easy for people to relax."

Such behaviour is likely a reflection of their working styles and could run the risk of burnout if they don't slow down to listen to their bodies.


Mr Marsden has found that there are two classic personas that hold people back: the superman and the nice guy.

The superman, he said, wants to do everything. But the belief that leaders can do everything on their own is "nonsense", said Mr Marsden.

"In many of the people I work with, the people with the biggest mindset shifts are those who ask others for help. The willingness to be open to support makes a huge difference if you want to sustain it."

Similarly, the nice guy also has problems asking for help, he pointed out. The nice guy doesn't want to be a burden.

Both personas end up with the same problems. First, they become an island, said Mr Marsden. Second, since both of them hate saying no, it leads to bigger issues down the road such as time management and lack of boundaries.

This also has a physical element to it, as Mrs Marsden pointed out. People who feel burdened because they don't like to say "no" tend to hunch, she observed.

But whether you believe in the power of physical fitness or not, being self-aware - mentally, emotionally and physically - is a positive first step to becoming a better leader.

After all, people don't just hear what you are saying - they are watching you.

To be a leader who can influence and convince people effectively, pay attention to your physical state. Your body speaks a language, too.

This article was published in The Business Times Weekend last weekend.

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