On Strength Training and Leadership

Goals are everywhere, but they rarely correspond with behavior. To illustrate, here’s a quick story. 

I started taking strength training seriously in January 2013. I was serving in Afghanistan, and neither my military base nor the weather was conducive for my go-to physical exercise, running. 

So I dove into educating myself and practicing getting strong by focusing on kettlebell training and the “big lifts” in the world of barbells: squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

I made some progress, but I hit a plateau after a few months. This is common, but my plateau seemed unusually stubborn. I found this troubling, particularly given that my goal was to join the “1,000 Pound Club” by the time I was set to leave my base in late November. This means that the clock was ticking, reminding me of the dwindling of time left for me to squat, bench press, and deadlift a combined 1,000 lbs. 

Then, I starting reading more from the renowned strength and conditioning coach and writer Dan John  (he’s full of great advice and philosophical musings, as is Pavel Tsatsouline).

At that moment in Afghanistan, one of Dan John’s most deceptively profound statements resonated with me like a quick slap to the face:

“The goal is to keep the goal the goal.”

Up until that point, I had been combining my strength training with some periodic treadmill running and other “cardio” exercise. But Dan John’s statement, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal,” illustrated how I was doing all kinds of things that weren’t conducive to my goal. In addition to my regular treadmill running, I wasn’t consuming enough protein each day, and I wasn’t getting enough sleep. 

So I changed. I aligned my schedule, my training program and my diet to that goal. I forged new habits and stuck to them. And on Nov. 8, 2013, I squatted 315, bench pressed 275 and deadlifted 425—for a total of 1,015 lbs. 

I’m not sharing any of that to brag. Not at all. Although I’m probably a little stronger than the average person and it was a nice personal milestone, it’s all relative. In the world of serious lifting, I’m really weak. 

So what does this have to do with leadership?

I’m sharing that personal experience because I think it has a great deal to do with what I see people struggle with over and over and over again. 

Leaders set goals and busy themselves with setting priorities. Organizations have numerous metrics to assess performance. That’s good, in and of itself. 

It’s necessary to have goals and ways to measure them, but it’s not sufficient if they don’t influence behavior. 

All too often, I encounter executives who are distracted. They have goals—indeed, often brilliant, strategic ones—but they fail to execute. It’s because they aren’t keeping the goal the goal. They fail to separate what they can do or even should do with what they must do. Their “priorities” are more often than not just lists of more stuff to do.

There’s a Russian or Chinese (or West Virginian, for that matter) proverb that states: “He who chases two rabbits, misses both.” 

It seems to me that distractions and “being busy” are killing both effectiveness and efficiency for leaders and organizations everywhere. Looking critically at my own life, I can find many examples.

But in an increasingly turbulent world—one in which we have increasingly greater numbers of flashy things vying for our attention—it seems like we could all perform at a higher level if we paused, identified what really matters and held ourselves accountable for behaving in ways that align with our top priority. 

Namely, I think that whether you’re trying to pick up something heavy or lead a team or guide an organization in a new strategic direction, it’s helpful to remember that goals are meaningless unless you truly commit to both the goal and what it’s going to take to achieve it—and what you’re going to prune from your list of activities (what’s your “to don’t” list?). 

So here’s to picking up something heavy, developing a new product, launching a new business or inspiring a team to go beyond what they thought possible—all while keeping the goal the goal

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.