Fitness and leadership

Why you should make your executives sweat

July 11, 2012: 10:43 AM ET

Some executive education programs are tacking on a fitness component to make participants think sharper and work hard the old-fashioned way.

FORTUNE -- At a Wharton leadership conference last month, Deloitte's managing principal of talent development, Bill Pelster, was showing off his company's new leadership school in Westlake, Texas, called Deloitte University. A key piece of real estate on the $300 million facility, he said, is DU's 12,000 square-foot fitness room, called "DFit" for short.

DFit is not just an amenity. It plays a key role in Deloitte's training programs, Pelster says. Some of the university's programs for top executives require participants to wake up at 6:00 in the morning and hit the gym before starting the leadership training part of the itinerary. "The intent is to get them into a good sweat," Pelster says, and also expose them to techniques for working out when they travel. At first, the leaders might complain about the early wake-up call, but most of them say, in their feedback after the program, that the fitness portion should definitely stay.

So people enjoy hitting up the elliptical before working their grey matter, but does exercise actually make people better leaders? There's evidence that it does.

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It's an extreme example, but General David Petraeus (who currently heads the CIA) reportedly said that physical fitness was the most important trait for good leadership, according to author and entrepreneur Charles Garcia's Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows. Granted, Petraeus, who was then the commanding general of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, led his troops through a 75-minute daily regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, and wind sprints designed to push the group beyond the point of exhaustion. Most of us could not keep up with that routine.

But you don't have to train under Petraeus to benefit from his strategy, which is to cultivate teamwork and toughness by putting people through a rough situation together. Leaders tend to emerge from such situations. It's something that admissions committees have known for a long time -- if you want to be a Rhode's Scholar, for example, athletic experience is a mark in your favor. Having played sports is a good indicator that an applicant has enough energy and discipline to hack it

That's because exercise that pushes a person's limits has the added benefit of showing their true colors. Anyone can seem collected in an air-conditioned office, but who still behaves like a team player when they're sweaty and hopped up on lactic acid? Those people might also have some of the skills to haul everyone through the next corporate crisis with some class. More

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