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Developing leadership muscle: An exercise prescription

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Many authors have written about how to develop leadership. Leadership development typically divides into two categories: Natural talent versus practiced skills. The latter is similar to when a person makes the concerted effort to improve their fitness skills. This would typically include visiting a personal trainer who would give advice that would boil down to strength training and adaptability skills. Strength training could include lifting weights and cardiovascular conditioning. Adaptability skills build flexibility to participate in multiple sports with equal skill. Leadership development can be likened to this exercise prescription by working on strengthening personal leadership and leadership adaptability.

Strengthening personal leadership focuses on placing oneself in progressively challenging situations. It's like a progressive weight training program where you lift light weights and once that weight is easy to lift, more weight is added to the exercise. Regarding leadership in this situation, the thought would be to begin challenging yourself in simple situations. Once you've mastered leading a handful of people, more people may be added. This sounds simple, but the challenge is continuing to be an effective leader while adding more members. This typically takes time and individual leadership style must be explored. In this situation, the timeline could be anything from months to years to develop your personal leadership style and should never be rushed as this could risk failing as a leader. However, once you've become comfortable at a certain level, progression to a higher level should be encouraged. Whether this means being a front-line supervisor leading one person or being the Air Force Chief of Staff leading the entire Air Force, progression to the next level is always encouraged.

Likening this exercise perspective to leadership adaptability skills, practicing one sport limits an athlete's full potential, as does limiting situations for a leader to lead subordinates. Athletes that are able to perform in multiple sports see the importance of having varied skills for numerous situations. Leaders also view this as an asset.

The best example I ever saw was back in 2004, while I was deployed to Iraq to Balad Air Base at the Air Force Theater Hospital. In the early years of the war, many traumatic casualties came through and many times in large groups. One night I remember receiving forty-five casualties. After arriving via helicopter, they were seen immediately in the emergency room. This room was full of physicians, nurses and medical technicians, but was under the directions of the "trauma czar" who oversaw the flow of emergency room directing patient care and maximizing the effectiveness of the staff. This person actually flourished in this chaotic environment. He was calm and clear headed and was able to keep his eye on the bigger picture to promote survival of all the patients. His original training was as a general surgeon, but over time he had gained knowledge in orthopedics, internal medicine and a myriad of other fields. This man was truly the heart of the hospital. Having multiple experiences in various situations allowed him to work in typically chaotic environments. This is the definition adaptability. He could move from situation to situation and was equally effective in them all. Therefore, it was clear that adaptability is key to true leadership skills.

Though it is not common to pair exercise concepts with leadership development, the results are very positive. When looking at how to improve your leadership abilities, look at two things, leadership strengthening and leadership adaptability. If you focus on these areas and truly put the time and effort into these areas, you will become a successful leader.