The Healthy Executive

This Is Why Business Leaders Fail At Being Fit and Healthy

Reading time: 2 minutes (1200 words @ 600 wpm[1])

Why do business leaders sometimes fail at their health?

I know I did. I was a stress eater, gained 55 lbs of fat, and woke up exhausted after sleeping.

To put it bluntly: I looked like shit and I felt like shit.

If I was an airplane, I was breaking apart and crashing.

In a flight emergency we all know to put our oxygen masks on first, in order to help others.

In a business emergency it’s the reverse. Leaders makes sure everyone else has their masks on.

Why is this the case?

Here are some of the main reasons and actions you can take:

  1. Flawed Leadership Paradigm
  2. Do You Walk The Talk?
  3. High Performance State
  4. What Other Leaders Do

Flawed Leadership Paradigm?

Almost every business executive I work with knows this leadership paradigm:

  • First priority is the business:
    • Vision
    • Mission
    • Objective
  • Second priority is your people:
    • Team
    • Employees
    • Family
    • Stakeholders
  • Third priority is yourself:
    • Health
    • Fitness

This leadership paradigm is taught everywhere from MBA programs (like Stanford GSB my alma mater) to military colleges like West Point.

This works in your 30’s and 40’s when you have health and energy to spare. But somewhere in your mid-40’s you realize that you’ve gained 10-20 lbs of fat and your energy and stress levels are not sustainable (my sad story).

At this point, most executives realize that health = productivity , and so they modify their paradigm and treat themselves as one of the team:

  • First priority is the business:
    • Vision
    • Mission
    • Objective
  • Second priority is your people AND yourself:
    • Welfare of your Team, Employees, Family, Stakeholders
    • Your Health and Fitness

But leaders are expected to be strategic and think long term.

Company shareholders now understand that ‘human asset management’ also includes the health of executives and employees (see my CEO updates, and my corporate case study on improved executive health). Several giants of global industry, including Novo Nordisk, Johnson & Johnson, and PepsiCo, have joined forces with nonprofit health advocacy groups to call for businesses large and small to publish information about the health of their employees.

I am now seeing the beginnings of a new business paradigm shift that looks like this:

  • First priority is the health of:
    • The business: Vision, Mission, Objective
    • The people: Team, Employees, Family, Stakeholders, Your Health and Fitness

Below I explain how traditional solutions like EHPs (executive health programs) and corporate wellness programs are being strategically retooled.

“The world will belong to passionate, driven leaders — people who not only have enormous amounts of energy, but who can energize those whom they lead”. — Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO

Do You Walk The Talk?

As a leader, are you a healthy role model to your family and co-workers?

(Hint: they don’t listen to watch you say, they watch what you do).

When asked, most of my clients admit the influence of their parents on their health and fitness. And with a bit of thought, we can make the connection between our grandparents lifestyle choices and their resulting health or illness.

Here’s the kicker: You are also an influential health role model to your kids and eventually to their children.

Recently I spent Father’s Day coaching my Dad. (It’s no coincidence that Father’s Day occurs during Men’s Health Month). I have also been privileged to coach my sons Alex, Dylan, and my daughter Angela.

The funny thing is, my family doesn’t listen to me either.

Instead, here’s what actually happens:

  • They are not getting the health and fitness results they want.
  • They see I am getting the health and fitness results they want.

And it works the same way in the executive world as well:

  • Executives are not getting the health and fitness results they want.
  • They see my clients getting the health and fitness results they want.

Whether in business or sports the best long-term performers sustain their strength and energy, and reduce fatigue by cultivating a condition I call the High Performance State (HPS).

High Performance State

Energy is the capacity to do productive work. Building, growing, and operating a business requires tremendous amounts of executive energy. It is also subjects the mind and body to tremendous amounts of stress and fatigue.

So how does the average executive stack-up against an ultra-endurance athlete?

Ultra-Distance AthleteBusiness Executive
Spends most of their time trainingDevotes relatively little time to training
Spends only a fraction of their time competingMust perform on demand ten, 12, 14 hours a day
Enjoy an off-season of several monthsFortunate to get 3 or 4 weeks of vacation a year
Have an average career span of seven yearsHave careers of 40 to 50 years in length

Clearly ultra-athletes spend most of their training and building their energy and the least amount of their time expending it. In contrast, executives spend most of their time expending energy and the least amount of time cultivating it.

The higher up you are in your organization, the more demands there are on your time and energy. A relevant finding from military performance studies is the higher the echelon of command and control, the greater the pressure and fatigue. The ability to do useful mental work and situational awareness declines as energy declines and fatigue increases.

Insufficient energy results in cumulative fatigue which reduces executive performance and can result in poor decision making and personal illness. Despite clear warnings of controllable malfunctions, human error due to fatigue was determined to be a root cause of the Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, and the Challenger catastrophes.


You can gain deeper insights into the executive high performance state (HPS) in my corporate health case study.
Richard Branson

“Being fit and energetic gives me at least four extra hours of productive time every day” — Richard Branson, CEO Virgin Group

What Other Leaders Do

Executives can bullshit themselves just as much as anyone else. (Trust me, I know from firsthand experience plus I am certified in health psychology).

Great business leaders routinely put health at the top of their list. They lead by example:

  • oracleLarry Ellison, founder of Oracle and ranked as the fifth wealthiest person on Earth, follows a disciplined routine to maintain his strength and stamina.[2]
  • Elon Musk, founder Tesla and SpaceX, co-founder PayPal and multi-billionaire businessman works out regularly and plays sports like tennis and swimming.[2]
  • Tim Cook, CEO Apple Inc. is known to be a fitness freak and loves cycling, hiking, and works out on a regular basis.[2]

Clearly a foundation of solid health plays a key role in the productivity of these business leaders.

You have many options (infographic) include the following:

  1. Apps and Wearables
  2. Corporate Wellness Programs
  3. Executive Health Programs

While better than nothing, these alternatives can be problematic from the executives point of view. These alternatives are “one size fits all” targeted at the general populations, and as such are not a good fit with these executive realities:

  • Time Overhead
    • Alternatives such as fitness classes or team sports operate on a fixed weekly schedule. Many executives can’t participate regularly due to business travel.
  • Location Overhead
    • Alternatives such as personal trainers or health retreats operate from locations away from the office. Many executives simply can’t fit an offsite commute into their already packed schedules.
  • Cognitive Overhead
    • Alternatives such as information products are too generic, others like recipes are too intricate. These impose a cognitive cost on already overloaded executives.
  • Technology Prosthetics
    • Alternatives such as health apps or fitness wearables sound good in principle. But the emerging body of evidence is that they don’t work as well as advertised and in some cases are even counter-productive.

Although not for everyone, online health coaching works well with executive realities (I wrote the The Definitive Guide To Hiring A Health Coach which you get for free here).

“If the other guy is getting better, you’d better be getter better faster than the other guy is getting better…or you’re getting worse.” -Tom Peters

Also published on Medium.

%d bloggers like this: