When I interviewed Chuck Runyon, I honestly did not expect such candid responses or even his reaction to my request to interview him on the counter-intuitive topic of "leadership and love." (Before you cringe, read on.)

Who's Chuck Runyon, you ask? Where ya been? He's only the CEO and co-founder of the fastest-growing gym franchise in the universe, with more than 4,000 gyms serving nearly 4,000,000 members worldwide.

That would be Anytime Fitness, by the way, and its members are such huge, raving fans, some tattoo themselves with the Anytime Fitness logo!

For this interview (edited for length), I wanted to tap into Runyon's unique, human-centered leadership style that filters down to the Anytime fitness culture. When I framed the interview in the context of how leaders lead through "love in action," Runyon's reaction was downright refreshing--and surprising--for any CEO:

"First, let me state how fascinating this topic is. Think about it...it's acceptable to profess love for a favorite sports team -- for whom you might spend a few hours a week rooting. As alumni, it's acceptable to profess love for the college we attended many years ago. It's even okay to exclaim your love for a special pair of jeans you might wear only a few times a year. But leaders aren't comfortable expressing love for their respective companies?  A team of people that they assembled? We spend nearly half of our waking hours with our employees and yet we're not supposed to express love for them? To me, that type of thinking is bizarre. I unabashedly express love for our team, our company, our values and everything we contribute to the world."

Wow. It's fair to say I would be quite content had I ended this article right here. But if the idea of mixing love with leadership has repulsed you, it shouldn't. Some of the world's top leaders are shamelessly coming out to declare that "love in action" works.

Here are four questions I asked Runyon about the impact that leading with love has on his company.

1. What are the top love traits or actions which lead to an engaging culture and business outcomes? 

Runyon: As a leader, I express that love by investing in and caring about the personal and professional development of our employees.  We allocate significant resources to improve our employees' health, their career development and their personal growth.  We're not satisfied merely to employ people.  We want to lead, mentor and develop them.

2. Is there a personal story on how you've demonstrated "actionable love" at work?

Runyon: One of our team leaders experienced severe anxiety whenever she had to make a presentation in front of a large audience.  She was very good at her job, but the mere thought of presenting a new initiative to a roomful of peers caused her to go experience panic attacks. So, I made a deal with her. I told her that if she jumped out of a plane (with a parachute, of course) at a company event, then I would do the same.  Somehow, she mustered up the courage to do it.  I jumped, too, shortly after her -- because we were in this thing together. The result: she now looks forward to presenting new ideas to others.  Heck, if she can jump out of airplanes, then she can do anything.

3. Why do so many leaders fail to demonstrate love and care when there's so much evidence that suggests it leads to high performance and business impact? 

Runyon: Many leaders are afraid of getting too close to employees because they are fearful that emotions will cloud their judgment when making hard decisions for the business. [Love] is also difficult to measure and quantify, which is another reason why some leaders don't put much weight in these areas. But a keen leader understands that employees emote a collective energy, a positive body language, when they love their work. Higher levels of employee engagement correlate directly to better performance and profits for the company. It's definitely true at Anytime Fitness and I believe it's true at many other companies as well.

4. What are you most proud of about the culture of Anytime Fitness?

Runyon: I've visited Anytime Fitness [gyms] all over the world.  No matter where they're located, the franchisees genuinely care about the well-being of their members. The gym owners and their staff all bust their tails to improve the lives of people every day. They love what they do for a living and I think it's accurate to say that they love their members. Despite our apparent differences, deep down we're all the same. And the empathy Anytime Fitness staffers feel for their clients makes me as proud as can be. 

Published on: Dec 13, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.