Leadership: It Takes More Than a 6-Pack and IG Account
The role of today’s personal trainer and strength coach has evolved significantly since the inception of the profession just a few decades ago. In order to truly thrive today as a fitness professional, it takes far more than just an appreciation of training methods, a background in the principles of exercise science and a chiseled set of 6-pack abs and Instagram account.
You must become a savvy leader capable of not only leading your clients and athletes in the gym, but leading your career to new heights in today’s free market economy that is predicated on service, experience, and of course, results.
As a brand industry that’s literally at it’s infancy continues to grow, diversify and mature, forging a real career in the fitness space can become a daunting task. But no matter the trends, no matter the sliding landscape of the industry, one thing will always remain true; passionate leaders will always come out ahead.
So the question remains, how you do become a leader in today’s fitness industry?
No matter how you personally define success in the fitness industry, leadership needs to be a cornerstone in your process in order to achieve at the highest levels while also keeping sight of your moral and ethical compass at all times.
Here are the top 5 leadership traits that every great coach, trainer and business owner in the industry must possess in order to thrive in a career in health and fitness.
#1 A Personal Leadership Philosophy
Many gyms owners talk about culture and how important it is. I’d agree with this wholeheartedly. The easiest way to explain culture is the saying: “How we do things around here.”
This gets determined by what gets repeated day in and day out, from how your team treat clients, timeliness, service, how you keep your place clean, what you do in challenging situations, what you stand for, what you stand against, and everything in between.
Thing is most coaches in the industry rarely have a clear way of operating and if you asked them they would probably stumble over their own words explaining their philosophy and values clearly.
This means you’re hoping to matter. You’re hoping to lead. And you’re hoping to make a difference.
Look, hope if a wildly powerful force – and we should foster hope in our lives and in the lives of everyone we touch – but hope is a lousy strategy. If you want clear leadership and success then you must plan to lead, plan to matter and plan to make a difference.
And that all starts with a question: “What is your personal leadership philosophy?”
A personal leadership philosophy is a set of beliefs and principles you use to evaluate information and respond to people and situations. An effective leadership philosophy allows anyone who hears it to gain an understanding of your values, priorities, approach to decision making, and what you expect from yourself and others.
I get it, it can be difficult to reflect on “macro-level” questions like this, but developing an answer is crucial, here’s why:
- Individuals able to articulate a personal leadership philosophy score over 110 percent higher on overall leadership effectiveness than those who cannot.
- Those who work with leaders who have a clear leadership philosophy evaluate their leaders as 140 percent more effective than those who work with leaders who lack a clear philosophy
- People who work with leaders who have a clear personal leadership philosophy report higher levels of:
- Team spirit
- Pride in their organization
- Commitment to their organization’s success
- A willingness to work hard to meet the organizations objectives
- Leaders who have a clear leadership philosophy score 135 percent higher on measures of trust than those who do not.
A personal leadership philosophy isn’t just a “nice thing to have”; research has proven it makes you impact others in a more positive way. If you don’t have a personal leadership philosophy, you don’t have a plan for leading every day; you’re hoping to lead, you’re not planning to lead.
Maybe you have some parts of a leadership philosophy but haven’t really ever sat down to determine the full clarity of how you want to operate.
While I didn’t have a clear philosophy and values early in my career, when I didn’t know what to do in a situation I’d ask myself: “What would the person who I want to be do in this situation?” Then do that.
Simple? Yes. Easy to follow? Hell no.
Truth is very few people have given a significant amount of thought to who it is they really want to be. Most want to fundamentally “good” as opposed to “bad,” but I’ve found that relatively few have taken the time to get much more specific than that.
We know how important setting goals is when it comes to fitness, achieving strength targets, the body composition you’re working for; but the same goes for values.
How do you give yourself credit for hitting a target you’ve never actually identified? If you don’t clearly define what “leadership:, “respect”, “loyalty”, or “accountability” (or any other value for that matter) mean to you, if you don’t turn them into specific goals so you knowwhen you hit them, you may be (and probably are) embodying those values every single day and not giving yourself an opportunity to acknowledge that fact.
Or what happens in many cases, you end up not living the values of the person who you want to become and that you want your company to stand for (and stand against).
Let’s get something straight, a value is a decision-making principle: an articulation of what you want your decisions to accomplish. Identifying loyalty as a value demonstrates that your decisions will focus on honoring your connections and commitments. Perseverance says you’ll choose to overcome obstacles and endure discomfort. Mindfulness says your decisions will aim to keep you conscious, aware, and engaged in any given moment.
When you identify your core values and take the time to define them, you are identifying the clear set of criteria you will use for decision making. Your values become the litmus test for the various options available to you: each potential action can be held up next to your list of identified values, allowing you to ask, “Which one of these options is most consistent with these values?”
Like I mentioned at the beginning – this is what builds culture, one of the keys to succeeding in the fitness business, or any business.
Think about this…
Most of us have no control over the cultures into which we are born, but we can create the cultures in which we live and work by developing and consistently living up to clearly defined expectations for behavior each day.
The more decisions you make due to cultural expectations you had a hand in creating – rather than rules, policies, and procedures – the better off you are.
I get fired up talking about this as it is THAT important. After 12+ years owning a gym I can tell you that this is something that is easily brushed off because it’s easier to search for some strategic and tactical tips that can help you get ahead – but it’s the backbone of where your business will go no matter which “systems” you implement
Let’s take some actionable steps to work on a personal leadership philosophy and determining core values.
Here are some simple (NOT easy) questions that will help you define your own core values:
- What do you believe in?
- What’s important to you?
- Who do you respect? Why?
Remember, core values are NOT rules – they’re who you are.
I’m going to share an example of how to develop this because I know it was hard for me at the beginning stages of running my business and because I didn’t have clear pointers, I also brushed this over and searched for quick fix strategies.
After choosing the first value, which we can say we chose IMPACT (which is one of mine); you have to define what the “impact” means.
I challenge you to begin the definition with three words: “a commitment to.” That phrase is almost always followed by a verb: a clearly defined action. We came up with:
“Impact is a commitment to creating moments that cause people to feel better off for having interacted with you.”
The goal is to be responsible for doing at least one thing each day to create a moment of impact as we have defined it. To add to this I dug into the research and found that questions about desired future behavior could actually help bring unfinished tasks to top of mind. So adding a specific question about impact would be a valuable driver of that behavior.
It took a bit of refining but we ended up going with:
“What have I done today to recognize someone else’s positive behavior or leadership?”
So when you look at it you have the following….
DEFINITION: A commitment to creating moments that cause people to feel better off for having interacted with you.
QUESTION:What have I done today to recognize someone else’s positive behavior or leadership?
When you start answering each question and prioritize it, make it an obligation, the top of your to-do list every day; you’ll discover how transformative these simple questions will be for you and your business. In the case of impact, if you want to model your leadership more consistently be more conscious about looking for and recognizing leadership in others. Leadership recognized is leadership created. You’re surrounded by people who go beyond what is expected in your gym, your community, so you’re surrounded by leaders – so start looking for them and recognizing them.
I wanted to give this example to give you a view behind how to determine your leadership philosophy. It’s not something you should rush but rather but take time and thought as if your business depended on it – because it does.
An extra tip in to getting more insight and ideas around creating values and leadership philosophy is looking at other people and companies you’re inspired by and respect, as they will help guide you in the creation of the values.
When you write them out you can also think in not just words, but rather mantra’s (and certainly not mission statements). Define a higher purpose and give your team they’re a part of building something much bigger than just clocking into work that day. Also think about whether it passes the t-shirt test (can you put it on a t-shirt and is clear and sounds good).
Nike has “Master the fundamentals” and “evolve immediately.”
Virgin has “It must have high quality” and “It must have a sense of fun.”
Zappos has “Deliver WOW Through Experience.”
Disney has “Show” (as in put on a show).
Starbucks has “Surprise and delight” and “Everything matters.”
Apple has “We don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit we’re wrong and the courage to change”
And Nordstrom (which is a local Seattle company that I’ve learned a lot from) has Rule #1: “Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
I’m just sharing some examples I resonate with as all companies (except for Nordstrom who has that one) have multiple values.
I spent extra time on this point because I believe it to be that important and one of the biggest opportunities and steps missed when developing a fitness business. Take the time and put in the work on this and start where you are, meaning, determine the values you for sure want to embody and develop the rest as you go. Your growth and business journey will be an evolution and you may change some things as you go along.
Make sure you take action right away even if it means not reading the rest of this article right now!
#2 Lead From The Top – It Starts With YOU
This is a very cliché term I’m sure you’ve heard of, but as many words of wisdom that have stood the test of time and many people take as “white noise” because they’re so simple – it’s absolutely true and crucial to being a leader and creating the culture that will make your business successful (or any other area of your life to be honest).
We started with developing your personal leadership philosophy and core values so that you have a clear target of behaviors that answer the question “Who do you want to become?”
Then comes the hardest part – living it.
And not just living it but doing it consistently.
If you’re starting off as a coach or have been coaching for a while but don’t have your own gym yet, know that it begins here, now.
Jeff Bezos said: “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn a reputation by trying to do hard things well.”
I may even add not only doing hard things well but striving to do them with excellence.
All of this starts with extreme ownership and taking responsibility for everything you do and how you do it. In the video interview I mention the salt shaker story which I explain how your team and clients will test you, and they should; and how it’s up to you to show what you stand for and stand against so that they follow lead.
This is simple but very hard and its what’s separates greatness from good or mediocre.
Remember that people are always watching, especially your team and your clients, and over time how you operate will build your reputation and in the toughest of times it will reveal your character.
Everything from how you train and take care of your body, how you treat people around you (team, clients, and anyone else!) how hard you work, the continuing education and growth you are committed to, your attention to details, your effort in creating experiences, the focus you put into keeping the environment the best for your team and clients, innovation, etc. – your daily behaviors will show what you’re committed to and with it create the path for yourself and your business.
Once you determine who you want to become, make sure your video matches your audio (what you do matches what you say).
You cannot ask others to commit to behaviors that you aren’t committed to and showing yourself over and over again.
Since we started with values, I’ll finish this point with one that is crucial and immeasurable.
In great leaders and teams, humility isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a source of strength, because it stops us from resting on our laurels. The mark of excellence isn’t thinking you’re the best—it’s always striving to get better.
Excellence is rare. Humility may be rarer. Put together those two traits are the most potent ingredients in the recipe for championship performance. Each day is an opportunity to improve, even if only a little.
At Vigor Ground this is our “1% Better.”
#3 Your Team Comes First Not Your Clients
Rick Warren once said “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
In leadership, it can be tempting to become enamored with status. However, it is crucial that you focus on your people more than you focus on yourself.
Simon Sinek talks about some of this in his book “Leaders Eat Last.”
I have learned that the best leaders are selfless and more concerned with the well-being of their team than with their personal titles. You cannot be an effective leader if you feel that you are better than your team. On top of that, teams under said type of leadership become hostile and experience low productivity and high turnover. This is something that plagues the fitness industry and gyms, just check the statistics.
So when I say your clients don’t come first it’s because for them to get the excellence, care, service that they deserve, there must be coaches that are capable, committed and fit to deliver that.
When it’s just you, then absolutely the client comes first as you are the person coaching them. Once you have a team then it’s your responsibility to make sure they come first. Team culture is one of the main things that determine gym culture. It’s also the people you’re going to spend the most time with and it makes all the sense in the world to care, support and like the people on your team, as well as help them to achieve their goals (while aligning them with the vision for the company).
I’ve shared this before on social media and yet I want to share it again as it’s something you should look at daily:
- Care about the work you do.
- Surround yourself with people who care.
- Show your team you care about them.
- Build a team that cares about one another.
- Together show your clients/customers/students/patients/fans that you care about them.
People want their leaders to be human beings who treat their team like human beings. They want honesty, humor, humility, and someone easy to talk to who listens to them.
They aren’t looking for an untouchable superhero to lift the organization up to the heavens of profitability with one powerful swoop. It’s much more basic than that. And Danny Meyer expresses this perfectly when he says, “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple and that hard.”
#4 Listen More, Talk Less
Its far more important for people to feel heard than to be agreed with.
As a coach you want to share all that you know with good intention but it often leads to cutting into team members and clients conversations, waiting for them to stop talking so you can respond, “telling” people what to do without even finding out what they truly want, and having less information since you’re not asking questions but rather trying to get your team or clients to “drink from a firehose” with all the information you’re throwing at them.
Truly hearing requires a conscious intention to listen beyond the words, to what’s not being said, which creates trust and deeper relationships. Leaders who truly hear their employees build an organizational culture of trust and honesty.
There are three levels to listening:
- Listen to speak
- Listen to hear
- Listen to understand
You should really strive to get to level 2 and eventually level 3.
Listening to hear. Most of us can get here in select situations if we are motivated. At this level we are actively paying attention to what the other person is saying. We are not thinking about what we want to say next or distracted by other things, we are totally focused on the other person.
A good example of listening to hear that most of us can relate to is when we are on a first date with a love interest; we tend to listen intently to their every word. The reason why we are able to do this in some situations but not in all is because our motivation to listen waxes and wanes depending on who we are with.
If we truly want to become great listeners — and it will serve us well to do so — we have to motivate ourselves to listen intently to every person, not just some.
Then there’s listening to understand.
This is the highest level of listening and few of us can get here without intentional practice. At this level we are not only paying attention to what others are saying, but also what they mean. People say things all the time but often fail to convey the underlying feelings or thoughts behind their words.
Listening and asking questions is a skill, one that is worth developing if you want to be the greatest leader possible.
#5 A Shared Sense of Ownership Increases Success
One of the people I look up to in business is Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, and he shared:
“Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it’s theirs. They can’t wait to share it with friends, and what they’re really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, is the experience of feeling important and loved. That sense of affiliation builds trust and a sense of being accepted and appreciated, invariably leading to repeat business, a necessity for any company’s long-term survival.”
The coaching and gym business is a service business, even more so if you think about it. We’re involved with our client’s lives much more so than a restaurant.
Studies report that 70% of people are disengaged from work.
What would happen if that number were dropped to 50%? Or 30%? How much more innovation, productivity, and company-wide transformation would we see? How much more care and impact?
I believe shared ownership may be one of the keys in increasing engagement. If the team feels like the company is theirs, that same sense of affiliation, acceptance and appreciation that Meyer references above could be achieved.
How can you create that feeling of ownership in your fitness business?
That is a question I want you to think about and once you have the answer – take action on it! I’d have you consider not only giving your team more opportunities and responsibilities but also co-creating the future with them. What do they think should be implemented into the training, flow, systems, etc.
Don’t be scared of failure either, as it’s the only way your team can learn. I see so many fitness business owners trying to control every aspect of the business when they have a capable team that could do great things and be empowered along with feeling a shared sense of ownership.
Let go! Fitness business and owning a gym is a team sport. Trust your team mates and involve them in building championship performance.
About The Author
Luka Hocevar is the Founder of Vigor Ground and Performance, with 2 facilities in Ljuliana, Slovenia and a facility in Seattle, Washington, which is one of the most recognized fitness, performance and transformation facilities in the US; integrating fitness, performance, nutrition coaching, behavior change, physical therapy, a fit bar, and recovery all under the same roof.
Luka is also a real estate owner and investor as well as highly sought after business consultant for coaches and fitness professionals across the globe looking to grow their gyms and build a legacy and freedom.