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Authentic Leadership in a Changing Industry

How are you balancing external pressures while still being a rock for your employees?

Leadership in changing fitness industry

Every day, new challenges arise that require fitness entrepreneurs to think differently and adapt to an ever-changing world. As a leader, how do you respond? Now, more than ever, employees are turning to their supervisors for behavior cues, tips on what they should tell clients and details about how to represent the company’s brand.

Needless to say, managers and owners are being pushed to step up and face these challenges, leading many to ask: What does strong management look like during such an unprecedented time, and how do you leverage authenticity while also contributing to future success?

What Is an Authentic Leader?

Authenticity involves understanding and owning one’s thoughts, beliefs and values. Once they are understood, an authentic leader acts in alignment with these values (Gardner et al. 2005). Do you know your unique strengths, and are you willing to invest in your staff’s growth (and your own)? According to Karissa Thacker, PsyD, a positive psychologist who lives and works in New York City, the process of developing authentic leadership is about “helping individuals, groups and organizations move toward an optimal state that is in sync with who they are.”

The disruption caused by COVID-19 ushered in a hard reset that gave many the chance to regroup and reevaluate exactly what’s most important in business and life. The most successful fitness businesses will learn from the downtime, consider what needs to change, and move forward with an upgraded mindset.

Real Management in the Fitness Industry

Authentic leadership provides tremendous benefits to a fitness business, and Thacker proposes two ways to be a “credible captain”: accomplishing goals and developing employees.

  1. Accomplishing goals. Thacker says authentic leadership is not just about goal attainment but also about how you achieve goals. Real leaders don’t just “get things done”; they check off tasks in alignment with their values. Clients notice the difference between being a transaction and feeling they’re part of something bigger.
  2. Developing employees. To inspire others to improve, authentic leaders provide feedback and clear guidance on how to reach goals. These leaders foster environments in which employees can continue to grow (Gardner et al. 2005). For example, if an employee wants to move from the front desk to the personal training floor, an authentic leader will encourage her, share practical steps on how to pursue that goal, and maybe connect her with a mentor. When employees are working with a leader who believes in their potential and invests in them, the sky’s the limit, says Thacker.

Ali Cross, MS, director of recreational sports at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, encourages employees to put time aside for goal-setting so they can continue to hone their personal and professional development. This helps them feel more intrinsically motivated and inspires them to work harder, which ultimately benefits all. An authentic leader is trustworthy and transparent, has strong morals, and can create a healthy workplace environment (Gardner et al. 2005).

Organizations that operate in alignment with their stated goals and values, while developing strong employees, can reap amazing benefits. So what are the steps to becoming a more authentic leader?

Getting Real

Being aware and accepting of oneself, acting in integrity, and having sincere relationships are all routes to becoming an authentic leader (Gardner et al. 2005). This is sometimes easier said than done, so it’s helpful to align action steps with your truest self. To keep yourself real, try one or more of these suggestions, recommended by Thacker and other experts:

  1. Use journaling to discover your best self. Try the following writing prompt to become conscious of your best “leader self”: “Think about yourself as a leader in the future. Imagine you are impacting the business, other people, teams and the organization as a whole, making full use of your talents and all of your selves. What do you imagine?” (Thacker 2016)
  1. Open yourself to feedback. Assessment includes discovering your key strengths as a leader and also a few “areas of opportunity,” or attributes you can continue to work on. Being open to feedback opens the door to growth opportunities. For example, you may discover that things aren’t working out favorably, which could indicate a need to adapt (Thacker 2016). However, if you’re self-aware and secure in who you are, the pinch that comes from realizing that Plan B needs to become Plan C is often easier to handle.
  1. Be transparent. Authentic relationships require trust, transparency and openness (Gardner et al. 2005). Thacker says that getting results calls for being truthful while solving problems. This requires that you communicate clearly and avoid the urge to sugarcoat what you say. What does this look like? Cross says that when she is leading, she focuses on communicating exactly where she’s coming from. This way, if her decision is challenged, she can explain the different factors and contexts she considered while making the decision. Her extra efforts to explain her thought process show transparency, creating trust among her employees.Many fitness facilities and studios had to lay off or furlough people because of the pandemic’s effect on business. Leaders who were upfront, open and honest about the decision—and perhaps shared how it personally affected them to make that difficult choice—gave a tough call a softer landing by not hiding behind an impersonal wall to obfuscate the process.
  1. Surround yourself with the right people. Thacker recommends noting the people you associate with and cultivating a group that helps you move toward your “ideal self.” Find individuals who support you in this process, and invite them to provide feedback, as well. Join a mastermind group or look for free self-development webinars where you can connect and network with fellow fitness entrepreneurs.

An Ongoing Process

Although the tips presented in this article aren’t the only ways to become a more authentic leader, they’re a good starting point. As you practice these suggestions and integrate the changes into your life, notice how you feel, and be honest with yourself throughout the activity. Keep in mind that managing from a real place is an ongoing process, and some days it may feel easier than others—just like real life! Thacker recommends tapping into your playfulness. Try something new and have fun with it.

Fitness leaders are being challenged like never before. When you lead from a transparent mindset and commit to developing key skills, you motivate and inspire employees and clients—not only through your actions, but also through how you respond to complications. This is how you turn challenges into opportunities.


Gardner, W., et al. 2005. “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16 (3), 343–72.

Thacker, K. 2016. The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self. NJ: Wiley.

Olivia Ellis, MS

Olivia Ellis, MS, is a doctorate student studying Positive Developmental Psychology at Claremont Graduate University and specializes in integrating positive psychology into the fitness industry. She is an adjunct professor, personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and previously worked on the management side of fitness.

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