Wellness: A Leadership Competency

Leaders are often evaluated against a set of core competencies that describe the skills and behaviors that result in superior performance.

  The standard set of leadership competencies, validated by extensive research, has since become the language of leadership.  Vision, Self-Confidence, Developing Others, Problem Solving… we know the list well. In fact, leadership competencies have become so familiar that they feel intuitive, if not obvious.  Of course, Integrity matters! Was that ever in question?

Measurements of leadership capability should not be confined only to intellectual attributes.  It’s time to add another competency to the list: Wellness.  Research shows that effective leadership and regular exercise are strongly linked. According to research by the Center for Creative Leadership, executives who exercise regularly scored better than non-exercisers in all leadership competencies including organization, credibility, leading others and authenticity.* I imagine your own personal experiences and observations suggest that leaders who take care of themselves tend to be more energetic, consistent, and dynamic.

When thinking about wellness and leadership, perhaps the notion of maintaining a fit appearance immediately comes to mind.  And yes, many panels have debated whether Chris Christie’s weight should disqualify him as a Presidential contender.  But physical stature is merely one dimension of wellness, and an overemphasis on weight loss is vulnerable to claims of superficiality and discrimination, which undermines the more important message.

In order to be prepared for the rigors of leadership over the long haul, leaders must attend to their physical, psychological, and emotional wellness.  I have known too many leaders who neglect even the most basic pillars of good health.  Some are chronically sleep deprived, which has well documented consequences on judgment, mood, and cognition.  Would you want a bus driver operating on 5 hours of sleep? No? Then, how about an executive managing billions in retirement assets or figuring out how to save a thousand jobs?  I’ve also observed leaders allowing work to take precedence over critical health priorities.  Repeatedly canceling doctor’s appointments or returning to work too quickly following an illness is simply unsustainable.

So, here’s my broad definition of the competency:

Wellness: Demonstrates a commitment to maintaining sound health, a balanced diet, and physical fitness.

And here are the corresponding behavior indicators:

  1. Creates exercise and nutritional routines that are resilient and can be reproduced in various contexts (i.e. business trips).
  2. Prioritizes diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from serious health conditions over work demands.
  3. Supports the wellness needs of others, and tolerates some inconvenience in order for others to maintain appropriate health-oriented regimens.
  4. Innovates ways to import healthy activities and resources into the work environment.
  5. Considers opportunities and threats to wellness when making business decisions and developing strategy.

There’s really no excuse for leaders to neglect their health, and the wellbeing of their employees.  Sure, professional realities such as travel, stress, irregular schedules, and confinement to an office can make it a challenge.  But if Wellness is elevated to the status of a must-have competency, rather than an optional lifestyle, then supportive structures and norms can be implemented to ensure success. Are leadership competencies like Accountability or Achieving Results ever considered optional? Of course not! Yet, surely those competencies are challenged by their own set of contextual factors.  However, when a competency becomes fully integrated into the language of leadership, the related behaviors eventually become second nature.


- Renee -

*From:  Criswell, C., & Martin, A. (2007).  10 Trends:  A study of senior executives’ views on the future.


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