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Crisis Leadership: Success Strategies for Today—and Tomorrow

In the spirit of “true grit,” fit pros have drawn from their playbook of positivity, discipline and creativity and dug deep to survive (and even thrive) during the pandemic. Here’s how leaning into our trademark skills may be critical to success.

Reopening a gym during COVID-19

Among the hardest hit by the pandemic, fitness professionals were sent reeling last spring with the nationwide shuttering of gyms. The opening of fitness facilities remained a patchwork across the nation. Already, though, some clear winners have become apparent.

Many individuals and facilities pivoted quickly to adapt to the newfound needs of homebound clients—namely by pushing classes and content online at record speed. Others positioned gyms as part of the “solution” to pandemic-related problems, with exercise being a preventive measure for obesity, cardiovascular disease and other health issues linked to severe coronavirus complications. Some, of course, did not fare so well. Many facilities, large and small, now face mounting debt and are negotiating staff losses, facility closures and bankruptcy. (See “A Closer Look at COVID-19–Response Winners and Losers.”)

Whatever your current reality, take heart: Fitness professionals inherently possess the qualities needed to thrive in this new normal. These include discipline, determination and optimism, all of which we apply in our work with clients every day. When combined with creativity, a willingness to experiment, and the desire to learn, grow and adapt, these qualities can help us all find (or reestablish) our niche. Ultimately, this reimagining of the industry and our place in it will only serve to improve our ability to help our members and clients.

The following insights and examples showcase equal parts of hope, courage and innovation. These accounts are offered for inspiration as you reassess, re-envisage and execute your own new-and-improved business model.

Crisis Leadership: Theory and Practice

Not surprisingly, the leaders who have emerged as our industry’s “success stories” have employed many of the same strategies as well-known historical figures who successfully navigated crises. Among the common denominators:

  1. acknowledging fears and encouraging resolve
  2. giving people a role and a purpose
  3. encouraging experimentation and learning
  4. managing energy and emotions

These, in fact, are four universal principles of crisis leadership, as described by Nancy Koehn, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times (Scribner 2017), who studies courageous crisis leaders.

Here, we share a brief overview of each principle and show how fitness industry leaders applied it in recent times.

See also: Authentic Leadership in a Changing Industry

Acknowledge Fears and Encourage Resolve

Encourage resolve

All exercise professionals can use this time to grow and establish themselves as leaders within their communities.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” stated President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address. His quote exemplifies the first principle of crisis leadership: Acknowledge people’s fears and communicate resolve in facing the crisis at hand.

Be Afraid, but Act Anyway

Tricia Murphy Madden, IDEA’s 2020 Fitness Leader of the Year and education director for Savvier Fitness, exemplifies the courage to face immediate challenges and related fears. “Being courageous does not mean that you live without fear,” she says. But it does mean quickly pivoting to solutions—and action—as she did in March when Seattle was instructed to shelter in place.

“Twenty-four hours later, I was conducting an online instructor certification [with my two partners] on a platform I had never touched,” she says. “I needed to take care of my team and family—they were my courage. My insides were ravaged with ‘what ifs,’ but luckily I have learned that true faith is faith in the unknown.”

Also, as co-founder of Homeroom Fit (homeroomfit.com), Murphy Madden was among the first to facilitate teaching live classes online after lockdown. Though it was meant to be a temporary platform, she says, “it quickly turned into a marketplace of brilliant and supportive friends who want to see their peers thrive.”

Encourage Resolve by Clearing a New Path

Also quick to respond was the American Council on Exercise. To encourage resolve among ACE-certified pros, the organization promptly created online resources filled with useful advice on how to shift practices to best meet client needs, as well as business needs, explains Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, FACSM, president and chief science officer for ACE in Redland, Washington. A sampling of ACE initiatives includes providing discounts, opportunities and webinars on how to transition to virtual coaching and/or training. The nonprofit also updated its recertification processes to offer live remote proctoring during the closure of live testing sites.

“ACE believes that all exercise professionals can use this time to grow and establish themselves as leaders within their communities,” says Bryant. “Pushing themselves to complete continuing education or build upon the services they offer may reward them in the future in terms of expanding their businesses and client base.”

Give People a Role and a Purpose

Give people a purpose

Provide trainers with an important role to fulfill and remind everyone why their work matters.

The second principle of crisis leadership is to “charge individuals to act in service of the broader community,” writes Koehn, in an April 2020 Harvard Business review article. The act of helping others enables people to find meaning in times of suffering, provides a sense of control in otherwise chaotic conditions, and reminds individuals of what they can do, even as they feel powerless in other areas.

Weave “Service” Into the Work

TRX® founder Randy Hetrick, MBA, a former Navy SEAL officer, not only emulates crisis leadership principles—he also teaches them to students at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in a course called “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” Demonstrating the importance of giving people a role and a purpose, Hetrick explains his plan after lockdown hit.

“We flipped our live education courses from our master trainers into ‘virtually live’ courses on Zoom [and provided them] free of charge to fitness pros worldwide who wanted to become TRX-qualified trainers,” he says. “TRX delivered more than 40 courses, qualified nearly 25,000 new training pros and provided free CECs to maintain basic certifications. It added up to more than $4 million of free education in just under 4 months.”

This model, in turn, provided TRX master trainers with an important role to fulfill and reminded everyone in the organization of why their work mattered. Simply put, it allowed everyone at TRX to “do great while also doing good,” says Hetrick.

Offer Options to Help or Be Helped

Miami–based Zumba® co-founder and CEO Alberto Perlman likewise created opportunities for Zumba-licensed instructors to continue teaching. “Prior to March 16, we didn’t have any Zumba or STRONG Nation™ instructors teaching virtually,” he says. “We created our own online teaching platform, ZIN Studio™, [with] tools for payment, feedback and more. We provided tutorials to ensure instructors are completely up to speed on the nuances of teaching in a virtual environment.” Like TRX, Zumba offered free education for instructors via the ZIN Now platform.

Zumba also provided $2 million in assistance to instructors personally in need of aid as a result of the pandemic. For example, to help instructors who were hospitalized or whose family members had passed away due to COVID-19, Zumba created the ZIN Community Love Fund, and for instructors who were also frontline workers, the company provided free childcare assistance.

Additionally, to allow instructors to be in service to one another, Zumba created Facebook support groups, and to get exercisers in on the act, the company launched “Your Moves Matter.” Through this program, Zumba donated one meal for every one person taking a virtual Zumba class. “[We] delivered over a million meals to communities in need,” says Perlman.

See also: Leading a Team in a Hybrid Fitness World

Encourage Experimentation and Learning

Experimentation and learning

Fit pros need to have a positive mindset and the willingness to experiment.

According to Koehn, history shows that “strong leaders quickly get comfortable with ambiguity and chaos.” They view crises as a time to commit to action, knowing that they will make mistakes—and adjustments—and learn as they go.

Let Crisis Be a Catalyst for Experimentation

Matt Wright, MS, EP-C, vice president of programming at City Fitness in Philadelphia—an organization with six gyms and over 350 staff—modeled his willingness to experiment in the launch of several online programs, even though they were not quite ready for prime time.

“The shutdown in March came fast and fierce. We were in the middle of developing an app for our personal training program. Two days after our gyms closed, we launched our app, as well as our Zoom channels that worked hand-in-hand for our members,” he says. “This kept all 30-plus of our personal trainers active during our closure. Nearly 70% of our members have continued their training with us virtually.”

The second launch took a little longer. “Our marketing and programming teams stepped up to develop an online channel that features 35-plus live classes per week,” he says. “It took about 10 days to develop the concept, design the platform and release it to our members. Yes, that’s a ridiculously quick turnaround.”

To ensure the staff would not be afraid to make mistakes, Wright gave them the following advice: Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.

“Once we launched, we were able to learn from our instructors, our members and everyone involved on how we could improve, which is just what we did,” he says. An example of this was their addition of online “theme night” classes. “One night it was a Rocky-themed BODYCOMBAT class, another was a boy-band HIIT-style workout, hosted by our version of Justin Timberlake. [We] even had a pajama party,” says Wright. “Our members loved spending their new version of happy hour with us on Fridays, and it always brought a lot of attention to social media.”

Ask Questions to Drive Innovation

“Leaders need to think outside the box,” says Todd Durkin, MA, CSCS, owner and founder of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. He regularly asks himself: “What problem can I solve that exists in the world today?”

For example, with stay-at-home orders, a lot of parents were asking, ‘How can I get my kids to work out?’” So we created an online program so kids can exercise using their phones,” he says. “You need to keep adding value. We had less than 10% freeze memberships, because we improved offerings to our members, added live online classes and created an on-demand library.”

Like Durkin, Michael Piercy, MS, CSCS, owner of The Lab, a science-based sports performance–focused facility in Fairfield, New Jersey, exemplifies the positive mindset of many successful fitness pros and the willingness to experiment. He also saw the shutdown as an opportunity to upgrade his offerings.

“Never waste a good crisis,” says Piercy. “We always had an online program, but we added a once-daily live, 30-minute, high-intensity morning workout on Zoom to give clients a sense of normalcy to their routines.” It was scheduled when they would typically have been training at the gym. “We also have a large parking lot and started offering outdoor workouts. The local news heard about it and came to cover our ‘concrete playground.’” The result was visibility for their program offerings during the pandemic.

Keep Your Head On a Swivel

Hetrick worked through many challenging situations to build the TRX business into a fitness brand that now earns more than $70 million in annual revenue. When he was seeking financing in the early days, many advisers told him his business should be either retail or B2B. He stuck with the combined business model. During the pandemic, TRX has been able to lean into the consumer market. Hetrick recommends that fit pros—whether they are solopreneurs or run large organizations—always remain alert to the environment, scanning for both opportunities and threats. “In the SEALS Teams we call this ‘keeping your head on a swivel.’ It’s a great metaphor for situational awareness in most of life.

“Entrepreneurs and business leaders should always remember to look up from their plans periodically and reevaluate their course, to ensure progress is being made and that the environment has not changed around them in surprising ways. Stay nimble and always be ready to pivot with a secondary and tertiary plan.”

Manage Energy and Emotions

Managing energy and emotions

Many say that creating community and interactivity through social media has played an important role.

The fourth principle outlined by Koehn speaks to the importance of caring for the emotional and energy demands of crisis, starting with one’s self-care and then tending to those you lead.

Project Calmness—and Spread It Around

As co-founder, president and CEO of Merrithew™, a Toronto-based company that provides fitness education, equipment and products, Lindsay G. Merrithew says, “My leadership is centered on remaining calm in the face of these unknown challenges, staying informed with the facts, and taking all necessary health precautions to protect our employees, clients and partners.” By modeling a calm, level-headed approach to decision-making, Merrithew can inspire calm in others by example. Merrithew himself survived a COVID-19 bout and personally understands the impact of the virus.

In April, to help clients navigate their new situation at home, the Merrithew company quickly launched “28 Days of Mindfulness,” a daily email campaign with nutrition tips, workouts, self-care routines from instructors and professional development resources. By providing these valuable and tangible resources, the organization helped clients both destress and stay energized.

Lead With Your Heart

Numerous experts emphasize how important it has been to maintain clear, open, honest and transparent communication with employees and members throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Among them is Bill McBride, co-author of the ACSM Facility Standards & Guidelines, 5th edition and president and CEO of Active Wellness and BMC3 Consulting in San Francisco. “Treat your customers and employees like family,” he says. “Do not compromise any employee’s or member’s confidentiality or privacy with others. Unlike other retail, we have a deeper relationship with customers.”

For staff, McBride says, “Spend a lot of time on education, training and role playing, especially on conflict resolution, de-escalation and patient kindness.”

Durkin agrees. “Serve your community. The more you give it, [the more it] fills you up. Right now is a time to make sure you are really encouraging your community and family.”

All operators who are continuing to bring in revenue emphasize frequent customer communication and ongoing efforts to provide support. Many say that creating community and interactivity through social media has played an important role.

See also: Help Clients Return to Training Safely, Smartly

Post-Crisis Leadership: Reimagining Our Industry

Post-crisis fitness industry

Leaders need to reimagine what the fitness industry will look like post-pandemic and figure out where they will fit in that new landscape.

Crises often create new attitudes, needs and behaviors. One positive from the pandemic is a heightened awareness of risks associated with chronic diseases and of the beneficial effects of exercise on overall health and, specifically, the immune system. Another important change is people’s increasing willingness to use technology to participate in virtual training on multiple platforms. “Not only has the economy changed, but people have changed, too,” says Piercy. “Some people resist the new normal, but this is a pivot point for all of us.”

Experts agree that what’s required for leaders to move forward—starting today—is a need to reimagine what the fitness industry will look like post-pandemic, then to figure out where they will fit in that new landscape. This requires visionary strategies and creativity. (See “Take ‘Action’ to Be a More Creative Leader,” below.) One of the most favorable areas for possible expansion is into the healthcare arena.

“I believe we are in a perfect storm for the fitness industry,” says Lisa Dougherty, founder of MedFit Network, a California-based organization for fitness professionals, allied healthcare professionals and students. “Beyond COVID, we’re still facing a chronic disease, obesity, opioid and mental health crisis. This is an opportunity for health clubs and fitness professionals to up-level services and education.”

Dougherty recommends that fitness professionals examine and support the following strategies:

  1. Position fitness as an essential component of health care and disease prevention.
  2. Expand our scope to pro-vide more inclusive programming.
  3. Emphasize the importance of fitness certifications.
  4. Network with nonfitness communities to control our narrative.

Here are a few examples of fitness professionals who have begun blazing a trail in these areas.

Positioning Fit Pros as “Essential”

David Rachal, III, MBA, CEO of HEALTH-E-FIT and outreach chair for the American Diabetes Association, has created a licensable “Medical Fitness Practitioner” role that legally meets the criteria for “essential worker” in the healthcare continuum of care.

In fact, the MedFit Education Foundation recently launched an MFP education program, which includes a business model along with educational materials. It is expected to be accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies in 2021. Also in the works are a slew of additional specializations focusing on specific health conditions, including osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes.

Rachal says, “Currently, four accredited universities are interested in implementing the MFP course into their exercise science degree programs—based on the strength of what HEALTH-E-FIT has been able to accomplish and the career growth potential for students in the medical fitness space.”

To begin exploring MedFit’s courses and webinars, visit medfitclassroom.org/our-courses. You can also do a deeper dive into the marriage of fitness and health care by downloading Club Industry’s 2020 Healthcare Report: The Future Is in Healthcare and Fitness Integration, available at clubindustry.com/reports.

Expanding to Serve More Populations

More and more, the fitness industry is aligning itself with a message of “health for all.” This opens up opportunities for fitness professionals to expand their work to include clients who are focused on health rather than fitness, per se. This includes the many individuals, both young and old, for whom movement is essential for health improvement and maintenance.

Helen Durkin, who is executive vice president of public policy for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association and president of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, advocates that all health clubs make an effort to be inclusive and to provide reasonable accommodations for accessibility for all individuals, as envisioned by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To facilitate this, IHRSA has created a free, downloadable e-book called Creating an Inclusive Fitness Club and Sector, available on the Publications: E-Books page on IHRSA.org. According to this resource, 1.5 billion people are currently living with a disability, and about 26% of them are inactive—that’s a huge untapped market in dire need of guidance and support.

Emphasizing the Importance of Qualifications

Piercy thinks fitness organizations should work to ensure that businesses hire only certified fitness professionals. “If we want to be an ally of the healthcare industry, we need to raise barriers to entry into the profession. This is essential to be a reputable part of allied healthcare.”

Piercy acknowledges that many people are against state licensure of fitness professionals, but he thinks this is a discussion the industry needs to have.

In the meantime, fitness professionals whose workload is not yet up to capacity can expand their future options by enrolling in continuing education courses or getting recertified, as needed. Says Bryant, “Diversification of programs and services that exercise professionals deliver will be critical to mitigating the risk associated with any future disruptions to employments associated with facility closures.” So, too, will the “adoption of programs and technology that allow for provision of an engaging customer service outside of the facility,” he adds. These are other areas that fitness pros can explore right now.

Telling Our Story, Our Way

“We have failed to control the narrative,” says Piercy. “We’re not considered an ‘essential business’ because the government and public don’t know exactly what it is we do, and that is on us.”

To address this issue, Francesca Schuler, CEO of In-Shape Health Clubs, and likeminded colleagues have founded the California Fitness Alliance, whose mission is “to be the united voice of all fitness professionals in California to keep our state healthier and fit.”

Alliance members have partnered with state and local officials to set and define safe, effective reopening standards and guidelines. The Alliance is also serving as a vehicle to inform government officials about the fitness industry in a broader context. Other states have followed suit and are working with IHRSA to inform federal government officials about the valuable role that fitness facilities can play in promoting community health.

Inspiring and Leading the World to Healthier Lifestyles

Leading fitness professionals have key skills and qualities needed to thrive in the new normal: discipline, determination and optimism. A fitness leader who combines these strengths with creativity and an interest to learn, grow and adapt can find a niche to serve the ever-growing population of people who will want and need fitness services in the coming months and years.

In the midst of the current chaos and uncertainty, and as the industry collectively reimagines its post-pandemic future, it can be useful to check in with your values. Revisiting the reasons you committed a lifetime to this business—your sense of higher purpose—can serve as a faithful guiding star for your compass.

“If there’s one industry that is going to transform bodies, minds and souls it’s us,” says Durkin. “But we’ve got to prepare ourselves for the fight.”

Are you getting ready? The world needs us now, more than ever.

Take “Action” to Be a More Creative Leader

When emerging from a crisis, a critical element in moving forward is creativity, specifically with regard to imagining what the future will look like and envisioning your future role.

Patty de Vries, MS, director of strategy, innovation and outreach for Stanford University’s BeWell staff health-improvement programs, was on the team that designed original wellness programs for Google and other prominent Silicon Valley companies. She says, “Limitations stimulate creativity, but it’s important to approach it with a growth mindset. That can begin by noticing what we’re thankful for each day and what is working well.”

She offers the following tips to stimulate your creativity for leadership, using the memorable acronym ACTION.

Activate your imagination. Think big. Dream. Imagine all that is possible.

Collect resources. Take a fresh look at everything—your family, your community,
your strengths.

Tackle your fears. Change can be hard. Believe in yourself.

Invest in tomorrow. Set up a call with a potential mentor. Sign up for a class. Block time out to feed your soul. Do things that will bring future rewards.

Own the outcome. Embrace and design your life. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Seek out people, ideas and activities that will support your growth.

Never give up. Setbacks happen. Find lessons learned. Pick yourself up and start a new adventure.

Source: Excerpted from The Soft Side of Success (TimeOut Services 2011) by Patty Purpur (de Vries).

IDEA Member Resources

The following bonus material on leading with
courage is available at ideafit.com/business/covid-response/.

  • “A Closer Look at Coronavirus-Response Winners and Losers.” The reopening of fitness facilities remains a patchwork across the nation. Winners and losers emerge in any economic shift. This article takes a look at some of each.
  • “Extreme Ownership: Leadership Principles for Teams.” “Every crisis presents an opportunity to be reborn better than you were before: stronger, smarter, hungrier . . . better,” says Randy Hetrick, founder of TRX®, a former Navy SEAL officer and an adjunct professor at the business schools of Stanford and the University of Southern California. This is just as true for individuals as it is for entire organizations. Get the lowdown on 12 principles drawn from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (St Martin’s Press 2015).
  • In addition, you’ll find a carefully curated list of suggested webinars.

Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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