- Review the role of a transformational leader and their influence on a client’s behavior change.
- Define two styles of leadership communication.
- Recognize empathetic listening as a key component to transformational leadership.
A fitness professional wears many hats while serving as a motivator, educator, support system, and more. It’s no secret that one of the toughest roles a fitness professional has is to guide and influence behavior change from clients. The methods used by the personal trainer to accomplish this role are paramount to the success of the client. To successfully influence this change, one must have an understanding of the complexities of human behavior and what motivates individuals to change.
To no fault of their own, fitness professionals may take the obvious route for helping clients change their behavior by dictating or telling them what to do. What sometimes goes unrecognized, or forgotten, is that even before the client hired a fitness professional to help them achieve their goals, they had valid reasons and motivations for participating in the very behaviors that may prevent them from reaching their goals.
Influencing behavior change is much more complex than advising a client to “stop,” or “just do this…” This may include telling a client to “Stop drinking wine with dinner,” or “You need to workout 5-6 days a week.” The realization that influencing behavior is complex will allow the fitness professional to step outside the box of a dictatorship and realize that clients are more likely to commit to behavior change when they are inspired to act differently, and when they are motivated because it coincides with their very own beliefs and core values. Inspiration that initiates behavior change comes from leadership, and more specifically, transformational leadership.
This article focuses on leadership as it relates to a personal trainer and thier client, however, the information detailed below is equally as relevant when applied to the relationship between a fitness manager and their staff.
Transformation is defined as a metamorphosis during the life cycle of an animal or human being (http://www.Dictionary.com). It is the constant state of change, adapting, or reaching a new potential. It is a process that may be influenced by every person, event, and even emotion encountered along the way. A transformational leader recognizes that there is little control over the client’s experiences and accepts a role as a “guide.” It is the “guide” that will have the ability to influence a client’s actions or behaviors in the most positive way. This can be done through transformational leadership.
Transformational leadership . . . is concerned with influencing others towards common goals and objectives and involves inspiring and motivating others to take ownership and self-regulate their own behaviors in order to achieve these goals (Morton et al., 2012).
A true leader of transformation gives the reigns over to the client and allows them to pave the way on their journey to success. This influences the client’s belief in their ability to achieve and succeed because they are trusted with the most important role of “driving the car.” Transformational leaders gain the trust of others by mentoring, encouraging, and empowering those with whom they work (Laurent, T 2007).
The Client’s Ownership
After the fitness professional affirms the client's opportunity to achieve their goals in a manner of how they would like to achieve it, it is then that the fitness professional begins to evolve into a transformational leader and can begin to foster one of the most important requirements of behavior change, ownership. This is not to say that the fitness professional should not present information to the client regarding realistic expectations of their goals and safety measures, as these can be molded into the client’s program. Fitness professionals can simultaneously instill ownership while maintaining the role of the “guide.”
Ownership stems from the ability to choose. As long as the client has the opportunity to choose from options that align with the goals they desire, agree with, and need, their ownership of the program takes hold. For example, when the client’s preferences for exercises are programmed into their workouts - modalities that suit their likes, and styles of exercises that match their personality – it allows them to choose and to be a part of the process. The client’s choices then match their personal beliefs and values and they gain a sense of autonomy, or independence. Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a sense of volition and choice . . . autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, higher productivity, enhanced persistence in sporting activities, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being (Pink, 2009).
The Client’s Trust
There is more involved in transformational leadership than simply allowing a client to choose among the options you have provided them or influencing them to take ownership of their programs. Trust between the client and the leader is a crucial ingredient to leadership success. Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person or organization is driven by things other than their own self-gain . . .You have to earn trust by communicating and demonstrating that you share the same values and beliefs (Sinek, 2009). Trust is nurtured through proper communication.
There are leaders and there are those that lead (Sinek, 2009). One’s perception of a leader is often based upon the leader’s actions and manner of communicating. Research has shown us that there are two types of leadership communication: human-oriented leadership and task-oriented leadership.
Human-oriented and Task-oriented Leadership
To describe it even further, human-oriented leadership communicates consideration and is heavily saturated with relational aspects of communication, such as interpersonal concern and warmth. Task-oriented leadership is much more saturated with the actual content of the information provided instead of the style of communication (De Vries et al., 2010). Therefore, human-orientated leadership can be related to a transformational leader, whereas task-oriented leadership relates to a more “dictatorship” style of communication.
A task-oriented leader may tell their client to perform 3 sets of an exercise for 1 minute each, following the exercises in the program created for the day. This may include words of encouragement during the client’s participation. Whereas, a human-oriented leader may ask their client to perform 3 sets at 1minute, while selecting the option within the exercise that best suits the client’s likes and needs. The human-oriented leader encourages the client during a set and tweaks the exercises based on the client feedback and by reading the client’s body language.
Studies have found that the most successful leadership styles - in which the individuals being led actually accomplish the tasks and create a culture of shared visions, missions, and core values - stem from this “people-focused”, or human-orientated approach. When a fitness professional is capable of stepping outside of their own mind and becomes more concerned with the well-being, feelings, and success of the client, their behaviors empower and inspire those being led to achieve higher levels of functioning (Morton et al., 2012).
Human-oriented leadership communicates through a set of key behaviors that the fitness professional evokes, including: modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart (Laurent, T 2007).
A human-oriented, or transformational, leader is able to communicate through these key behaviors when they listen to the deep internal drivers of the client. The ability to understand and recognize a client’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations is what psychologists call empathy. Empathy is achieved in part by the learning skills of effective listening (Sugarman, 2011). In addition to empowering clients with ownership of their programs and earning their trust, empathetic listening allows for an effective human-oriented communication style and transformational leadership because it is client-centered.
When leadership is client-centered, the leader recognizes what is vitally important to the client. It’s also about getting them and yourselves better and better at doing what is important and having a higher purpose in doing so (Sugarman, 2011). When the client is the focus, and they are led in a direction specifically chosen by them, the outcome is one they were looking to achieve. After all, people hire fitness professionals, or personal trainers, who provide results to their clients; the irony is that clients are more likely to get results when they are led by someone who lets them choose how they want to accomplish the task. The fitness professional becomes nothing more than a guide on the side, encouraging, empowering, inspiring, challenging, and enabling the client to take action simply by listening to what they want, like, and need.
In the video below, Hayley Hollander and Scott Hopson discuss the keys to leadership communication and how to create a winning culture:
Transformational leadership stems from the ability to guide the client to choose new behaviors and to make choices that match their own beliefs and values, which allows the client to gain a sense of autonomy and develop ownership of their program. A transformational leader communicates using a human-oriented approach and empathetic listening, which creates a more personal experience while building a trusting relationship between the fitness professional and the client. This client-centered approach allows one to lead on the highest level.
- De Vries, R. et al. (2010) Journal of Business Psychology: Leadership=Communication? The Relations of Leaders’ Communication Styles with Leadership Styles, Knowledge Sharing and Leadership Outcomes. 25:367-380
- Laurent, T et al. ( 2007) Journal of Athletic Training: Leadership Behaviors of Athletic Training Leaders Compared with Leaders in Other Fields. 42(1):120-125
- Morton, K. L. et al. (2012) International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: Family leadership styles and adolescent dietary and physical activity behaviors: a cross-sectional study. 9:48. Article URL: http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/9/1/48
- Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY Riverhead Books
- Sinek, S. (2009). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York, NY Penguin Books
- Sugarman, R. (2011). Engaging and Retaining Clients in Healthy Behavior Change: A Guide to motivation for Personal Trainers and Coaches. Level 7 Psychology, www.moltenmango.com