“It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
From the smallest of facilities to the global corporations, leadership has proven to play a tremendous role in determining whether the business and/or employees experience success or failure. Although leadership may be thought of as a basic human quality, it is also quite complex. Effective leaders may vary from one another in their backgrounds, educations, personalities, methods, and numerous other characteristics, making it difficult to identify the source of their success. Over the past three decades, much research has been done on the topic of leadership, which has spawned such an equally vast array of leadership strategies, theories, and methodologies (Jago, 1982). Interestingly, many of the leadership lessons that apply so aptly for the corporate world also apply in the fitness industry and are utilized by owners, managers and personal trainers. These leadership lessons not only help owners and managers drive business success, but can also function as effective coaching tools to help personal trainers achieve greater success for their clients.
An effective leader in the fitness industry must be able to critically evaluate each situation and apply components of the many different leadership systems to successfully guide and motivate a group. This article will help to define leadership, identify three leadership styles, and provide tools to help fitness employees apply effective leadership.
What is Leadership?
Before we delve into the characteristics and application of leadership, let’s take a moment to examine how leadership is defined.
Jago (1982) stated, “Unlike ‘harder’ sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology) where well accepted ‘laws’ may govern phenomena, the soft science of behavior in organizations remains an imprecise, inexact exploration into the causes and consequences of complex human interaction.” Despite the difficulty in pinpointing the formula for this soft science, numerous attempts have been made to define what leadership is.
In the same article, Jago (1982) coined leadership as both a process and a property. Jago referred to the process of leaders as “the use of non-coercive influence to direct and coordinate the activities of the members of an organized group toward the accomplishment of group objectives.” He referred to the property of leadership as “the set of qualities or characteristics attributed to those who are perceived to successfully employ such influence.”
Leadership may often be presented as involving a group or numerous groups. However, should the concept of leadership only apply to groups of people or employees, or could leadership also be possible at the individual level? After years of researching military, sports, and corporate leadership, Daane and Weiner (2011) re-defined leadership as, “to inspire, motivate, and give direction to groups and individuals to pursue a common purpose.” In this context, leadership is applicable at many levels and effective leadership can be applied in all facets of life ranging from management to individual coaching, from parenthood to interpersonal relationships.
Management vs Leadership
Management is a crucial component of business and client success whether it involves managing finances, human resources, operations, or simply managing a customer database and client training programs. According to Bohoris and Vorria (2012), management is a process that is used to accomplish organizational goals. A manager, therefore, is the person to whom a management task is assigned. These tasks typically involve the key functions of planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, problem solving and controlling.
Leadership, on the other hand, is about having vision, mobilizing, inspiring, motivating, and giving direction to people (Kotter, 2001).
Capowski (1994) stated that a leader is flexible, innovative, inspiring, courageous and independent and at the same time a manager is consulting, analytical, deliberate, authoritative and stabilizing. In other words, managers are specialized in managing systems, which requires a completely different skill set from leaders, who in turn are specialized in people.
Does this mean that managers can’t be leaders? Experience is teaching us that there are countless excellent managers with great leadership skills. However, awareness of the different skill sets required for each disciple will undoubtedly make the manager even more effective as a leader and vice versa. This applies to both the fitness manager and the fitness trainer who both are required to manage and lead simultaneously. This is not an easy task for either professional.
Characteristics of an Effective Leader
The foundation of effective leadership boils down to self-awareness. Effective leaders tend to have a great understanding of how their own personal behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal, are influencing the people around them.
Jim Rohn (2004) once stated, “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude. . . kind, but not weak . . . bold, but not a bully . . . thoughtful, but not lazy . . . humble, but not timid . . .proud, but not arrogant . . . have humor, but without folly.”
Even though this statement may seem straight forward enough, practice is showing us that the ability to consistently remain in the middle of the spectrum of each of these factors requires great self-awareness and often times a great deal of self-control. This awareness and control is reflected in a leader’s personal conduct, which in turn contributes to their leadership style.
If the definition of leadership dictates what we do as leaders, then our leadership style dictates the manner in which we interact and communicate with others. Many different leadership styles have been researched in the last 80 years, and even though quite a number of styles have been identified, it was groundbreaking research from psychologist, Kurt Lewin (1939), that identified three major leadership styles as: authoritarian, democratic, and delegative leadership.
Authoritarian Leadership (Autocratic) – I am your leader and what I say goes.
Authoritarian leaders, or autocratic leaders, provide clear expectations for what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how it should be done. There is also a clear division between the leader and the followers. Authoritarian leaders make decisions independently with little or no input from the rest of the group.
Lewin’s Research found that decision-making was less creative under authoritarian leadership and that it is more difficult to move from an authoritarian style to a democratic style than vice versa. Interestingly, when a follower perceives abuse of this style from the leader, it is usually viewed as controlling, bossy, and dictatorial.
In later years, researchers identified that authoritarian leadership is more task oriented than people oriented and appears to be less successful as a leadership style than a more people oriented approach (Blake and Mouton, 1964)
Participative Leadership (Democratic) – Together we can achieve anything.
Lewin’s study found that participative leadership, also known as democratic leadership, is generally the most effective leadership style. Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and allow input from other group subjects. Interestingly, in Lewin’s study, subjects in this group appeared less productive than the members of the authoritarian group, but their contributions were of a much higher quality.
Participative leaders encourage group members to participate, but do retain the final say over the decision-making process. Group members tend to feel more engaged in this process and tend to be more motivated and creative.
Later research has identified that participative leadership tends to be more people oriented than task oriented. It tends to be the more successful form of leadership of the three leadership styles identified by Lewin in 1939 (Blake and Mouton, 1964; Likert, 1961).
Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership – You’re the expert, so you figure it out.
Lewin’s research showed that delegative leaders offer little or no guidance to group members and leave decision-making up to group members. This style can be effective in situations where group members are highly qualified in an area of expertise. However, when applied incorrectly, or to the wrong group or individual, it often leads to poorly defined roles and may result in a lack of motivation and decrease in performance.
Which Leadership Style is Most Effective?
Although Lewin’s studies revealed that participative leadership, or democratic leadership, is generally the most effective, the perfect leadership formula has not yet been developed. Since leadership involves people who are all individually unique, chances are, we will never see a perfect formula.
Unfortunately, practice is still showing us that most managers and trainers choose one default leadership style with an expectation that this leadership style will be effective in all situations. Research is showing us that the most effective leaders are not those with a typical leadership style, but those leaders who possess the ability to adapt their leadership style based on the context of the situation, the task at hand, the types of followers, and the organization (Osland et al, 2001).
In other words, there is no such thing as the most effective leadership style for all circumstances. There are only effective or ineffective leaders and their level of effectiveness is determined by their capability to apply the appropriate leadership style to aptly fit the given situation.
Application of Effective Leading for the Fitness Manager
In today’s fitness industry, each manager is confronted with a unique set of challenges every day. Since the fitness industry is a service industry, managers are challenged with making difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the organization, while simultaneously operating as effective leaders by meeting the needs of its people and clients.
Much energy, time and effort is dedicated to developing and maintaining systems and tasks that allow the machinery of the organization to run smoothly. It is understandable for the manager to prioritize his or her time and energy on these systems since these enable the organization to continue to make money.
On the flip side, each system within an organization is run and maintained by people. Disregarding the needs of the people, one can expect a very high turnover of employees and decreased work motivation of trainers. This in turn affects client satisfaction resulting in a drop of membership numbers, and therefore a decrease in revenue. Achieving an effective balance between management and leadership is an extremely complex task.
The field of Neuroscience is teaching us that there is a direct link between levels of stress and an inability to relate with and feel empathy for another human being. Basically, this means the more stressed and overworked managers become, the less capable they are of producing the hormone Oxytocin, which is responsible for the ability to bond with others. The absence of Oxytocin, on the other hand, enables us to feel isolated, which in turn initiates a chronic threat response enabling a feeling of “us versus them” (Mitchell, 2006). Obviously, this is not a good scenario for effective management or leadership.
With this in mind, it is quite understandable for the overstretched and stressed out manager to choose an authoritarian leadership style as a default leadership strategy. Even though this form of leadership could be applied in situations where there is little time for group decision-making, such as during moments of crisis where a team of less experienced members turn to the leader for guidance, on the long-term this form of leadership may cause more damage than good. The result of this damage may leave staff members feeling bullied, controlled and unappreciated.
To be an effective manager and leader combined, the manager must find ways to stay calm, relaxed, and poised to enable optimal levels of Oxytocin production during the day. Stress management, therefore, is one of the most important and effective strategies for the manager.
Though it may seem unproductive, taking breaks from a stressful task to allow for a workout, maintaining hydration and good quality nutrition, combined with a good dose of self-awareness and social interaction, will ensure much higher mood levels and actually increase productivity overall (Guszkowska, 2004).
Next to enabling optimal levels of Oxytocin, a great leadership strategy would be to inspire, motivate, and give direction to other members of the organization to do the same. This could potentially result in greater overall mood, increased staff engagement and happiness, decreased employee turnover, and increased productivity. This, in turn, results in greater client satisfaction and increased revenue.
Application of Effective Leading for the Fitness Trainer
Effective leadership is not only a concern for managers of employees, but it also applies equally to anyone who deals with other people, including personal and group trainers. The ability for the trainer to effectively inspire, motivate, and give direction to a client and empower them to achieve their goals may be one of the determining factors of being a successful trainer.
Once the trainer is able to draw a panoramic view of the leadership style, he or she will be able to determine how effective the style is and whether or not he or she is choosing a “default one-size-fits-all” approach versus using different leadership styles for different types of situations and clients.
Managers and personal trainers spend countless hours developing effective systems to enable the business and clients to enjoy the greatest success possible. In the attempt to develop the most effective programs and systems, the fundamental key element to drive these should not be overlooked: the motivation of our staff and clients. Even the best designed program or management system in the world could be ineffective if the client or trainer is not motivated to follow suit. To serve as both an effective manager and leader, one needs to be able to switch hats seamlessly to ensure that his or her vision is communicated effectively to each staff member and/or client. Therefore, the challenge for any professional is to develop his or her own leadership style that works best in the given situation. Finding the right style is unfortunately a process of trial and error. Instead of implementing a default leadership style, a self-assessment is recommended to determine whether the style is producing the best results possible. Chances are, in time, through trial and error, a perfect blend of leadership styles will emerge that will ensure greater success for both the business and clients.
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