The Leaders Gymnasium: exercising your body, mind and spirit to reach your leadership potential

The process of becoming a leader is much the same as becoming an integrated human being. ~ Warren Bennis

The third part of The Leaders Workout is what we call Leader’s Gymnasium.

The opening quotes from Warren Bennis sheds light on the most important point in understanding our personal growth as leaders: leadership growth is really personal growth. Specifically, its growth as an integrated human being.

Practices that facilitate your integrated growth is what we mean by the Leaders Gymnasium.

Allow us to explain.

Reaching your potential at the gymnasium

As you read our blog you will notice that the highest form of leadership we espouse – being Great and Good – is the integration of character, competence and change.

As a starting point we can examine the component activities of these leadership factors and discover the practices we can do to become an integrated leader.

That’s what we mean by the Leaders Gymnasium: The exercises and practices that we can learn, develop and strengthen, to assist us to our journey to become an integrated and effective leader.

Why gymnasium?

The modern idea of a gym actually has ancient roots that sheds light on how can best grow and develop. The gymnasium as an institution actually predates the Christian church and democratic government. The longevity and deep roots of the gymnasium is a great source of wisdom for us as we think about our growth and development.

In the book The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym we discover that “…the gymnasium was central to the pursuit and attainment of an individual’s full physical, social, moral and intellectual potential know to the ancient Greeks as arete.“

The ancient Greek word of arete meant to live up to one’s full potential or excellence in any endeavor. From Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources we learn how multi-faceted this word was: “A definition of arete would include virtue, skills, prowess, pride, excellence, valor and nobility…”’Arete existed, to some degree, in every ancient Greek and was, at the same time, a goal to be sought and reached for every Greek.”

The ancient gymnasium was an institution that was created to facilitate the potential of the ancient Greeks. It was an integrated approach. Of course, there were practices for the body. But one would equally learn about philosophy and moral instruction at the gymnasium.

Exercising the four domains of leadership: moral, intellectual, emotional and physical

In looking at our growth as leaders we need to take inspiration from the gymnasium and create our own practices for excellence in leadership.

Let’s start with the foundation of all healthy leadership: Character. Character is simply a moral activity based on certain traits and ideals that you hold dear. Expressing these ideals and traits allows you to create moral commitment by influencing people and relating to them by your example and action. As many wise people throughout history have observed, who you are speaks much louder than what you say.

Competence is largely an intellectual activity. Stephen Bungay, the author of The Art of Action writes that “developing strategy is an intellectual activity. It involves discerning facts and applying rationality.” Competence requires building conceptual and analytical skills.

Dealing with change requires a solid and healthy emotional foundation. You can’t effectively deal with the uncertainty, complexity and the intensity of change unless you have mental toughness. You need to excel at the ability to process and understand your fears, doubts and lack of control we leaders have as we strive to accomplish our mission.

Moral, intellectual and emotional activities are supported by the physical: your health and energy. The psychiatrist and author of Spark, Dr. Ratey makes the case that the physical benefits of exercising is secondary to the benefits for your brain. To be effective and impactful leaders it’s clear we need to hone our bodies – the physical – as a foundation to our moral, intellectual and emotional activities.

It’s the integration of these 4 different domains – moral, intellectual, emotional and physical – that constitutes a highly effective leader; an integrated and whole leader.

As leaders, we need to create our own gymnasium: the space and practices where we can effectively and systematically work these four domains in support of our growth.

Leadership growth is personal growth

In my communication with him [Peter Drucker], he validated that leadership development, especially of knowledge workers, begins with personal development. ~ Dr. Paul Wieland

The opening quote from Warren Bennis and the one above of Peter Drucker shed light on the most important point in understanding our personal growth as leaders: leadership growth is really personal growth.

How does personal growth actually happen?

We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, we live ourselves in a new way of thinking. ~ Fr Richard Rohr

Father Richard Rohr illustrates an important point. We grow our selves in life not by thinking alone but by living, by action.  It’s a unity of wisdom and action into specific practices that facilitate our growth.

But what is a practice?

We know the word from sports or perhaps music. We do repetitive tasks and lessons to improve our skills. In their book, Integral Life Practice, Ken Wilber et. al write that practice is ‘an intentional activity that you repeat consciously and regularly for the purpose of health and growth.’

And this action has to be integrated in the four main areas of our lives to be really effective: body, mind, emotion and spirt.

I learned this important lesson from my experience at West Point.

A Life Lesson from West Point: The Gymnasium of Leadership Virtue

Body and spirit I surrendered whole to harsh instructors – and received a soul. ~ Rudyard Kipling

I was truly fortunate to attend and graduate West Point.  I learned an incredible amount about leading, following, character, the military arts and integrity.  But the lessons that really stand out to me, after all those years, is how to effectively grow oneself in an integrated and holistic way.

West Point’s mission is to develop complete, integrated leaders to serve the American nation and it’s military. What I initially thought was a crazy-ass schedule meant to stress us out and maximize the daily pressure was really an integrated approach to developing the whole person.

West Point’s leaders found the best way to train leaders and create an environment to stimulate growth was to focus on physical, intellectual, emotional, moral-spiritual elements.  Our daily schedule included:

  • Body – ‘gym classes’ (combatives, swimming, boxing, and gymnastics – taught by one of the coolest job titles in the world – the Master of the Sword) and complemented by intramural sports and military drill.
  • Mind – broad academic classes in humanities and sciences to grow our intellectual skills.
  • Spirit – spiritual lessons as embodied in the Cadet Prayer such as admonitions and wise counsel to live up to noble ideals:
  1. “Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking…”
  2. “Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life.”
  3. “Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.”
  4. “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”
  • Emotion – a Stoic-like embrace of struggle and challenge as the vehicle for our growth; what we call the ‘Glorious Grind’.

At West Point I had this multi-faceted program of activities thrust upon me.

In the civilian world I had to create my own series of practices to support and sustain my growth. As I read and reflected on the best way to set up these practices I realized this desire for repetitive actions to help improve our selves and realize our highest potential was not new.

Using the same Body, Mind and Spirit “technologies” that improve elite soldiers

This integrated approach to improving ourselves also showed amazing success with individuals who are already on top of their game.  Sticking with the theme for a moment of lessons from the military, there was a 1985 US Army project called The Trojan Warrior Project. It took 25 Special Forces soldiers (the elite Green Berets) and put them on an experimental program to enhance their skills.

In the book, In Search of the Warrior Spirit, the author Richard Strozzi-Heckler, psychologist and martial artist (aikido) gives us an inside view of the process.  Strozzi-Heckler was one of the instructors in this innovative program. The plan addressed areas such as mental training, physical fitness, diet and psychological values.

This holistic program used the leading edge of “inner technologies” like meditation, biofeedback, aikido, learning theory, exercise and mind-body psychology.  Strozzi-Heckler explained that “this would be the school in the Army with a curriculum based on the holistic model – optimal performance on all human aspects: mind, body and spirit.”

And the results were amazing. It took already top performers and made them better. “I presented statistical and subjective evidence that demonstrated how the merging mind/body/spirit technologies we taught to the Army Special Forces produced significant and impressive increases in their physical fitness, mental focus, values enhancement and team cohesion,” wrote the author.

I’m not sharing this to impress you but to press upon you the importance of the principals involved.  You don’t need to have a military background to benefit from these concepts.

The combination of these activities, rather than one element in particular, is what really fueled our individual and collective growth.

Read the blog posts below to further inspire you with specific practices to fuel your growth.

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