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Leadership, Learning, And Cardio

Leadership, Learning, And Cardio

What does leadership development have to do with cardiovascular exercise? The answer is simple - a lot. Here is why. In today’s ever changing, ever challenging, and ever competitive business markets, the demand for leadership development becomes more and more evident. A day doesn’t go by that someone, somewhere has not written about the requirement for strong leadership. Although, when we hear the need for strong leaders, our minds immediately go to how effective and successful some leaders are versus others. Or we think about what knowledge, skills, and abilities make up a strong leader. It seems many have an opinion on this topic including the characteristics of a strong leader. This article takes a closer look at the behaviors that make strong leaders; it looks at the psychological as well as the physiological characteristics that build strong leadership.

A thought provoking study was done on the “Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition” by scientists Kirsten Hötting and Brigitte Röder (2013)1. I found this study interesting because it points to the direct correlation between the positive effects of physical activity on executive functions and memory in humans. This intrigued me because learning and acquiring new skills come from our brain’s ability to adapt and change (“neuroplasticity”). According to Hötting and Röder, “Convergent evidence from both human and animal studies suggests that physical activity facilitates neuroplasticity of certain brain structures and as a result improved cognitive functions.” The findings suggest that physical exercise may enhance and help maintain an individual’s cognitive capacity to respond effectively to new demands. We all know leaders face new demands daily as they strive to build innovative, competitive, and sustainable business models. Hötting and Röder concluded, “New data suggests that to maintain the neuro-cognitive benefits induced by physical exercise, an increase in the cardiovascular fitness level must be maintained.”

Here are a few questions I would like to pose we ponder. What if combining physical fitness and cognitive training took a center seat as an innovative approach to leadership development? Could understanding the relationship between physical fitness and our ability to improve our cognition via cardiovascular activities offer stronger leadership development training? Could leadership learning and development benefit from a curriculum that addresses both? Said another way, would improving a person’s leadership strength physiologically as well as psychologically improve executive functions and memory in a way that would improve their leadership skills and produce a more effective leadership learning and development outcome?

Forbes published an article by Carmine Gallo entitled “Successful Leaders Commit to Staying Fit” (Gallo, 2013)2. This article offers a few examples of leaders incorporating physical and mental fitness into their daily lives.

The first example is Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Gallo comments “Larry Ellison is in great shape and is proud of his commitment to fitness. He races sailboats, which is physically demanding. Larry is 68 years old, runs a successful organization, and looks a lot younger than his age.” Gallo continued to list other leaders who possess incredible stamina and who have chosen to include physical fitness into their lives. Apple CEO Tim Cook is the most energetic person in the room after a 12-hour flight. He is a fitness buff who works out, hikes, and cycles. ReadyTalk, Dan King, takes his zest for fitness to his employees and offers free yoga, massages, and subsidized gym memberships. King told reporters “People taking care of themselves are going to have higher levels of energy and are going to be more balanced in terms of work life. Barack Obama works out every morning, Mitt Romney jogs daily, and Congressman Paul Ryan is devoted to an extreme fitness program called P90X.” (Gallo, 2013)2.

Brent Gleeson, another contributing writer for Forbes covers leadership and marketing for entrepreneurs. Gleeson wrote “5 Reasons Why Good Fitness Makes for Better Entrepreneurial Leadership” (Gleeson, 2012)3. He begins his article discussing why Navy SEALs have a relentless focus on fitness, and he explains this from his personal experiences as a Navy SEAL. He tells us this focus exists because there is a direct correlation between one’s ability to cope and handle extreme mental and emotional stress. Gleeson continued “good leaders must maintain mental and physical fitness in order to effectively drive the business forward and inspire the team.” He gave 5 reasons why fit leaders make better leaders:

  • “Energy and productivity necessary to effectively address important decisions faced each day
  • Confidence and creativity
  • Facing challenges while maintaining mental focus
  • Mental wellness is achieved by boosting the brain’s feel good neurotransmitters called ‘endorphins’
  • Influence. The role of a leader is to lead by example. Studies have shown a healthy workforce is a more productive workforce, which improves attendance and productivity and reduces healthcare costs.” (Gleeson, 2012)3.

In conclusion, the values of the effects of physical fitness/cardiovascular exercise upon improved cognition underscore the importance of combining cardiovascular exercise within leadership development programs. Therefore, the opportunity to improve leadership learning and development programs, strengthen leadership effectiveness, and produce greater learning outcomes may very well lie within our leadership development curriculum/instructional designs. What do you think?


1Hötting, K. & Röder, B. (2013). Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition. Biological Psychology and Neuropsychology, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

2Gallo, Carmine (2013). Successful leaders commit to staying fit. Retrieved from Forbes

3Gleeson, Brent (2012). 5 reasons why good fitness makes for better entrepreneurial leadership. Retrieved from Forbes


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