Lessons From the Trenches, Part Three: How to Become a Better Leader

Be empathetic, push the envelope, and reward the people you manage.

By Krista Popowych
Aug 24, 2015

Every day, leaders are faced with new challenges and learning opportunities. Good leaders don’t simply sit back and assume the position of leadership; they embody it. They set a good example, they evolve and they lead through thick or thin. In the third and final installment of this series, we identify ways to lead with greater impact.

Be Empathetic

A great leader blends these three strengths: the fortitude to withstand other’s doubts, a unique vision to inspire the masses, and the resilience to bounce back after failure. But what if leaders could also see into the future? And what if they could delve into the minds of those whom they lead? These two additional abilities would undoubtedly help leaders be more effective. Of course, leaders don’t hold a crystal ball; but what a great leader does possess is an uncanny ability to connect with others and be empathetic.

Great leadership involves understanding what makes people tick—and, ultimately, guiding them to their full potential. This can be an almost impossible task if you have no clue where someone is coming from. Empathy, which is key to impactful leadership, involves truly understanding how someone is feeling. You step into people’s shoes, so to speak, and “get inside their head” to experience their joy or pain and understand their frustrations. If being empathetic isn’t your leadership style, it’s a skill that you can develop. For example, when you need to connect with an individual staff member over important issues, find a quiet meeting spot, turn off electronic devices and really listen to what that person is saying. Here are some additional tips:

  • Avoid making preconceived judgments.
  • Don’t try to offer a “quick fix” solution.
  • Watch facial expressions carefully.
  • Observe body language, and notice any “closed off” gestures, such as crossed arms.
  • Try to imagine how the individual might be feeling.

“Close your mouth and open your ears,” counsels Barbara Crompton, founder of The Fitness Group and a visionary leader for over 35 years. “Listen to the subtle messages being put forward by others, and be their witness. By doing so, you let go of personal judgment and biases.”

Forge Ahead

Great leaders abhor mediocrity. The leaders who have stood out across history are the ones who weren’t afraid to challenge or change conventional thinking. As Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his book The Tipping Point, that point is the “magical moment” when an idea crosses a new barrier and “spreads like wildfire.” Small changes can have a big effect, and these evolving situations lead to development and change.

Great leaders are often great visionaries. They are out-of-the-box thinkers and strategic risk-takers; they abide by the tenet that constant change is one of the drivers of success. Fortunately, in the fitness industry change is inevitable.

As a leader, your goal is to keep things fresh. If innovation is not your strong point or if you’re concerned that a great idea might crash and burn, don’t force the game plan. Change can be as simple as reinvention. Find ways to put a fresh spin on an old concept. For help, go to events or conferences that aren’t necessarily fitness industry–focused. Listen to a guru who may not be a health and wellness specialist. In short, to move outside of your regular circle of influence may be just the refresher you need. And always think big—even if your organization is small.

Not all changes and innovations will work. Be prepared for failure. Crompton’s advice: “Own the failures.” Your role is to “add the glue when things need to stick and bring on the Teflon when things need to be let go.” Great leadership is a change–fail–succeed–repeat proposition.

Set the Bar

Society thrives on expectations and norms. Parents, for example, are encouraged early on to establish routines and to be positive examples for their children. Dog owners are urged to be the “alpha dog,” in command. Both scenarios reflect a need for order and role modeling. Similarly, great leaders provide structure, excel at making productive decisions, and have high expectations not only of others but also of themselves.

Great leaders create a winning team, from both the top down and the bottom up. As the saying goes, “Winners attract winners.” A leader’s behavior, work ethic and integrity should set the bar high for others. As the leader, you need to have a clear vision; then you need to effectively communicate your plan, establish order and always be decisive.

Modeling and mentoring success in others is a sign of a great leader. Not your forte? Begin by becoming a better delegator. This will free up your time, and it will inspire someone else. Take time to explain a task, make your expectations clear and set timelines. Then give your staff the freedom to fly. Avoid hovering and hampering. The greatest compliment a leader can receive is to see a staff member excel.

Be Inspirational

What do great leaders do to develop an inspiring work environment? Surprisingly, they don’t pay their employees more. Rather, they understand that the top two drivers of job satisfaction are praise and recognition. “Dance, shout and celebrate the success of your team at every opportunity,” shares Crompton, who coined the acronym “RRC” as a reminder to recognize, reward and celebrate staff as often as possible.

Establish methods for recognizing success, then reward team members and celebrate their successes with the entire organization. Did someone reach a sales goal? Recognize the achievement by connecting everyone who was involved in that win. Reward the achiever with a handwritten thank-you note or a simple gift. Better yet, find out how individuals like to be rewarded. If someone doesn’t drink, for example, a bottle of wine is not as impressive as a bouquet of roses, especially if flowers are what the person loves. Celebrate on a larger scale by letting the entire organization know: Shout it out through multiple communication channels. Success breeds more success.

Great leadership isn’t always easy, but making an impact is incredibly rewarding. At its finest, leadership combines the desire to motivate, the drive to inspire and a vision about how to reach the destination. “When all those moments collide, collect and multiply,” declares Crompton, “there will be a powerful, long-lasting legacy to better the world.”

Additional Leadership Tips
  • Let yourself be seen. Manage by walking around. Great leaders don’t sit behind a desk all day.
  • Recognize staff for doing the right things. Immediately acknowledge a job well done.
  • Create spontaneous “Ellen moments.” Dance, groove and establish a positive work environment.
  • Help others succeed by sharing information. Rally to support them at every opportunity.
  • Give back to the community. Lead fun runs, or support a worthy cause. As an organization, spread compassion and kindness for those less fortunate.
Krista Popowych

Krista Popowych

Krista Popowych inspires fitness leaders, trainers and managers around the globe with her motivating sessions. As the 2014 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and a three-time (2016, 2008, 2003) canfitpro Canadian Fitness Presenter of the Year, Krista has shown an outstanding commitment to fitness. She is Keiser’s global director of education, as well as a Balanced Body® master trainer, JumpSport® consultant, DVD creator, published writer, Adidas-sponsored fit pro and IDEA Group Fitness Committee member. She loves to inspire others through education and movement, and her energy, creative sessions and real-life approach to instructing and training make her a highly sought-after presenter.

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