What is a leader in the fitness industry? CEOs and managers are often tagged as leaders, so it’s not just someone who shines on stage and enthusiastically teaches group fitness classes. Where do leaders come from? Are they genetically predisposed to have charisma and influence? Or did they work hard to cultivate those skills?
“I believe that some individuals are born with better abilities to lead, due to their personality and presence,” says Natalie Johnson of Population Health Consultants in Bradenton, Florida. “Others who are not born with those abilities can learn them.”
Susan Finley, owner of TrainSmarter in Birmingham, Alabama, says, “People who are ‘born’ with strong leadership potential still may not succeed if they can’t work well with others. Others who think they would be more comfortable as a “follower” may discover leadership potential they didn’t know they had—under the right mentor or the right circumstances.”
In the fitness industry, instructors and presenters stand in the spotlight and are the most publicly recognized leaders. However, many factors play a role in changing lives. What about the people “behind the curtain”? Even though these “underdog” leaders are sometimes expected to act like their more visible counterparts, they make a difference in their own way.
While natural-born leaders may make a fitness manager’s job simpler, it’s satisfying to help the less-likely leaders emerge. Of course, assembling and motivating a team and aligning them with appropriate roles is easier said than done. Cultivate your staff to be happier, more effective and more productive by understanding what makes your leaders tick and maximizing their potential.
Recognizing the Leader
A leader is anyone who guides, leads or shows others the way. According to researcher Daniel Gerdes (2001), “teacher,” “leader” and “coach” all have the same phenomenological meaning. All people who take on one of these titles have the potential to influence attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, regardless of the delivery mechanism. Each may lead by writing, speaking, listening or being an example. “Anyone who follows a passion, and who shares that passion with others, is a leader,” says Jeremy Manning, owner of La Jolla’s Finest Training in La Jolla, California. “If you lead, others will follow.”
All fitness professionals need effective communication skills, as well as a sense of responsibility and timeliness. However, one leader might be better at research, writing and planning, while another excels at speaking and teaching on the fly. Silent skills like research and planning don’t always get the credit they deserve. Notice and encourage these traits in your quieter team members, and watch them attract more business.
Leaders can be born or made, and each one falls onto the continuum of introvert and extrovert at a different place. This uniqueness makes it challenging to use the terms, which were developed by the psychologist Carl Jung in 1921 (Kahnweiler 2013). As Finley says, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. I thought of myself as an extrovert for a long time, but now I think I’m probably an introverted extrovert.” Don’t presume you know who is who!
Introverted leaders seem to be incognito, and they’re not always shown the same attention as extroverted leaders unless they mimic extroverted traits. In Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, Jennifer Kahnweiler, PhD, writes, “I have become convinced that introverts can be highly effective influencers when they stop trying to act like extroverts and instead make the most of their natural, quiet strengths.” She also mentions the advantage that introverts have with social media because of their thoughtful usage of it.
Amanda Vogel, MA, a fitness writer/blogger and social media consultant for the fitness industry, is an excellent example. “I consider myself an introvert,” she says. “I gain a lot of energy and creativity from being alone in my home office. Pursuing a career as a writer and social media consultant has allowed me to educate and influence others using platforms that I feel most comfortable with—the written word and the creative nature of social posting.” She also presents and teaches group fitness part-time. She’s an introvert at heart, playing extroverted roles.
Does anyone on your team fit this description? Do you have introverts you’re unfairly trying to mold into extroverts? Encourage them to help with social media or produce a newsletter for the company or for their own business. Some fitness professionals can work with people 40 hours a week, while others are better suited to splitting their time between public and private. Get behind them and their natural tendencies; it’s where they’ll shine.
Johnson acknowledges this. “I know many introverts who are great leaders and inspirational speakers,” she says. “They come alive on the stage, but most of the time they prefer to be out of the spotlight in a more comfortable environment. Both types of leaders can be highly effective.”
Most extroverted leaders recognize this truth, and they can work to understand the introverted types better and encourage them toward their strengths. Be a company that allows team members to balance their time with people and without, according to each team member’s personality. Customer retention and turnover rates depend on the quality of your team, which you can affect by finding and encouraging this balance for each individual.
Aligning Leaders With Roles and Clients
Acknowledging the various leaders on your team and their preferences for influence creates more harmony for the entire community. Part-time staff will be much happier and more effective if they have other fulfilling roles that complement the time they spend with clients and participants. When you’re hosting open houses or staffing marketing booths at events, for example, maximize your team’s efforts by having the introverted/researchers work behind the scenes and putting the extroverted/performers in the public eye.
This applies to matching trainers with clients and classes as well. Clients have different motivational needs. Some need “tough love” and contagious enthusiasm, while others crave consistent reinforcement and compassion from a quieter, calmer leader. Fitness managers who can identify this and match clients with the right professionals have higher rates of adherence (and happier trainers who bring in more business and stick around longer).
Packianathan Chelladurai, PhD, points out in his Multidimensional Model of Leadership that a smaller discrepancy between leaders’ behavior and clients’ needs facilitates better outcomes (Chelladurai 1990). While this research is dated, it can be observed in the classroom, on the field and at the gym. There is no doubt that when people are compatible in their style of learning and style of teaching, the financial and emotional outcomes are greater. It takes a little more time and effort to pinpoint this, but doing so boosts your bottom line.
Does Gender Matter?
“I believe that most—but not all—women lead differently than men,” says Johnson. “I believe both have their strengths, because the followers will all have different preferences and styles that appeal to them.” Manning says there’s another way to think about this: “It’s less about what you came with, and more about how you use it.”
Trying to categorize leaders based solely on gender causes the same problem as contrasting introvert with extrovert. Just when you think you have it figured out, someone comes along with a unique blend of skills and personality traits. There’s no fast track to understanding or categorizing people.
Get away from stereotypes and categories. Instead, spend time understanding the individuals on your team. Encourage them toward what they like and are good at. Your entire culture will benefit!
Chelladurai, P. 1990. Leadership in sports: A review. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 21 (4), 328-54.
Gerdes, D.A. 2001. Leadership education: Physical activity and the affective domain. Physical Educator, 58 (2), 78-85.
Kahnweiler, J.B. 2013. Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.