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What CrossFit Can Teach You About Leadership

A leadership consultant explains how hardcore workouts helped her be a better boss.
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For an everyday gym-goer, a CrossFit workout can be jarring: After a trainer yells "3, 2, 1, Go!" groups of participants race to complete timed series of lifts, calisthenics, and aerobics, often in rounds. They're exhausting. For many, they're also addictive.

Six years ago, an entrepreneur and consultant named Val Wright walked into CrossFit Belltown in Seattle and got hooked. During the day, Wright counseled executives at companies including Microsoft, Amazon, and LinkedIn on how they could lead better, and encourage their teams to innovate more and expand their businesses faster. But as CrossFit transformed her physical fitness, she realized the workouts were giving her new ideas about leadership, too. Today, Wright will compete along with over 100,000 other athletes in the CrossFit Open, the first round of a worldwide tournament dedicated to the sport.

Here, Wright shares some of the entrepreneurial lessons she has drawn from the workouts:

Vary your work experience. It's the only way to grow. Just as some people are born runners, executives have natural skills, whether it's sales, finance, or motivating a team--and they tend to stick to them. But then a crisis disrupts the business, and they find themselves as ill-equipped as a marathoner on muscle beach.

CrossFit throws random exercises at participants to force them to improve their weaknesses. Wright suggests a business equivalent: "I imagine a hopper of leadership challenges: You need to speak before 500 people, or your competitor suddenly comes out with a product that leapfrogs you, or you’ve got to deal with a PR disaster," she says. "What is it you'll really struggle with? What do you want to practice? What do you want to hire someone else to handle?"

Give underperformers a "No rep." Flub a pull-up or shortchange a squat, and CrossFit trainers shout "No rep!" and make you do it again right, says Wright. But at work, few managers communicate the need for improvement so directly and dispassionately.

"Leaders are often delusional that underperformers will recognize it in themselves," says Wright. "Meanwhile, the rest of the team wonders why the person isn't being dealt with"--and the laggard remains clueless. Identify clear performance standards, let people know when they fall short, and frame it in a way that's geared toward getting the next rep--be it a sales target or a deadline--right the next time.

Coach creatively. After five years of lifting, Wright believed she had gotten her squat clean as good it could get. Then, at a weekend CrossFit seminar, a coach said something unexpected: "Imagine you’re squeezing a deck of cards between your shoulder blades." The image caused her to straighten her back, put her chest up, and execute the move more cleanly than she ever had.

A manager should constantly try different ways of communicating with employees, whether it's attempting different kinds of verbal feedback or showing examples. "Rely on a variety of tactics," says Wright. "Too often, leaders say something without really explaining it. It takes time to do it right."

Instead of rivalry, build a competitive community. CrossFitters are obsessed with their personal bests--the most they can lift and how fast they can complete various named benchmark workouts, like the punishing "Fran," a series of pull-ups and thrusters where you squat with a weight above your head. That's especially true in the Open, where athletes will compete for the best times in the same workout.

In the business world, leaders should set clear metrics but put the focus on employees besting themselves. After each person finishes a workout, they cheer the others onto the finish. "In our box, the last person to finish gets the loudest cheer," says Wright. Everyone, she says, is extremely competitive. But instead of worrying what the next person is doing, each wants to set a personal best--and encourage others to do the same. That way, they win together.

 

Last updated: Feb 27, 2014

BURT HELM | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Burt Helm is a senior writer for Inc. magazine.




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