A Great CEO Is Always Building Muscles

I get to work with a lot of great CEOs. When I reflect on what makes them great, one thing sticks out – they are always building their muscles. All of them.

As a marathon runner, I’ve got massive legs. Marathoner legs. They’ll look familiar to anyone who runs a lot. In contrast, I have a wimpy upper body. I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights. So I don’t spend any time on it.


I’d be a much better marathon runner if I worked on a bunch of other muscles as well. I’m starting to get into a swimming regimen, I’m riding my new bike around town and this summer I’ve got pilates three days a week as a goal of making it a habit. By the end of summer I hope to have a bunch of other muscles developing and a set of habits that enables me to finally maintain them.

The key phrase above is “I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights.” When asked, I say I’m bad at it. Or that I simply don’t like it. Or, when I’m feeling punchy, that jews don’t lift weights.

Of course, these are just excuses for not working on another set of muscles. If I don’t like lifting weights, surely there are things I like doing instead. I’ve always been a good swimmer – why don’t I have the discipline to go to the pool three days a week and swim? Most hotels I stay in have a swimming pool or have a health club nearby. Swimming is as easy as running – you just get in the pool and go.

“I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” That’s what runs through my head when I lift weights. For a while, I used this narrative with swimming. But when I really think about swimming, the narrative should be “I’m ok at it and I like it.”

So why don’t I do it? I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the particular muscles I use when I swim are intellectually linked to the weight lifting muscles, which gets me into a loop of “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” So rather than break the cycle, I let my muscles atrophy.

Yoga is the same way. I struggle with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It’s too fast for me, I struggle to remember the poses, and my glasses constantly fall off, and I can’t follow what’s going on. So I say “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” and then don’t do it. But I do like Bikram Yoga. It’s slower, there are the same 26 poses, and I like the heat. So why don’t I do it? Once again, the narrative gets confused in my mind and it turns into “I don’t like yoga.”

All of this is incredibly self-limiting. Rather than fight with “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” how about changing it to “I’m not good at it but I’m going to try new approaches and find something I like.” There are many different approaches to building a particular muscle so rather than use a one-size fits all approach (e.g. I must go lift weights, which I hate), search for a different approach that you like.

If you want to be a great CEO, you need to be constantly building all of your muscles. There are going to be a lot of areas you think you aren’t good at. Rather than avoid them, or decide you don’t like them, figure out another way to work on these muscles. You’ll be a better, and much more effective CEO as a result.

  • You are only as strong as your weakest link, brain or body. Great post… I am ready to get my workout in this afternoon!

  • As a CEO, I’m not good at simply listening to the ideas that others have.  I jump in too quickly and grab the wheel.  I know I’ve turned good into great….but I also wonder how many great ideas I have steered into the wall…. or worse, turned them into merely “good”.   Why not listen all the way through???  Ugh.  

    I’m sure there are many more atrophied CEO muscles.  Maybe I’ll ask my team…and listen.

    p.s. on the weight lifting….like pretty much everything else:  You’re about 90 days of consistent effort away from being good at it AND enjoying it.  Been there.

    • On the 90 days – totally agree. A habit for me is about 30 days and really cementing it is 90. I hope to get there this summer with pilates.

      • Peter D Clowes

         I have been doing crossfit with Neil at Trada and the results are fantastic, great community too! Beware it is addictive!

        • I keep thinking about trying Crossfit but I’ve heard it’s really hard on runners given all the random stuff.

      • I’ve heard great things about pilates. Never tried it. I have the flexibility of uncooked spagetti, so I’m pretty sure I’m avoiding it because I wouldn’t be good at it quickly 🙂

        • I have similar flexibility – that is – very little – and I’ve decided it’s time to change that.

  • It doesn’t hurt that exercise helps fuel your brain (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/how-exercise-fuels-the-brain/), build your brain (
    http://greatist.com/fitness/aerobic-exercise-builds-brain/), and protect it (http://greatist.com/fitness/news-exercise-protect-brain/). 

    Think, also, that there’s something inherent in taking on the challenge of things that are hard (whether it’s a pull-up or understanding legal paperwork) and then mastering them. The confidence that comes from that, from the constant self-improvement & self-accomplishment, pays off big time when it comes to the skills you’re already great at– and trying to do greater things with them.

    • The “taking on something new and mastering it” is one of the most satisfying things on this planet. Once you look at the things you suck at through that lens, it’s super motivating to go after them.

  • “cross training”

  • Nick Rivadeneira

    It’s interesting you should make that analogy – I’ve had success in the gym and always use it as an analogue to achieving success in my career. Physical fitness is an incredibly introspective endeavor and the lessons you learn over many years can be applied to so many other parts of life. One of my favorite quotes about lifting:

    “The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
    -Henry Rollins

    • Love the Rollins quote.

  • What a great post in so many ways…I’ve figured out how to enjoy working out (I mix it up every which way and the only routine I have is that I do “something that is exercise” almost every day) but there are things in business that I just don’t get, am not good at, and/or won’t take the time to get better at because I’m stubborn (or mostly afraid).  Thanks for this reminder that it’s possible if we put a different spin on it.

  • What are the muscles of a CEO? I’m sure the relevant muscles are different for different kinds of companies and different stages for growth. For small tech companies though, I’d say:

    * Legs are product – they take you places
    * Arms are cash and finance – you need them to get stuff done
    * Core/Abs is team – connects everything together
    * Lungs is customer – connecting you and your company with the broader world
    * Heart is passion – keeping you motivated and engaged with everything
    * Mind is insight – enabling leaps, explaining change, looking ahead

    I wish I could look at my CEO body as easily as my physical body to see where I’m weak and strong.  

    • Awesome metaphor. One approach to look at the CEO body is to do a 360 review once a year. Matt Blumberg talks about how he does it on his blog at http://www.onlyonceblog.com/2006/06/my_360_on_your_

  • Or as the CEO, you can cover for these deficiencies by hring strategically while you continue to “build muscle”. (Eg. Zuckerberg / Sandberg)

    • Absolutely and critically important in any situation. It’s also super useful to have coaches, who can be mentors, board members, advisors, or just friends. My running coach Gary has been transformational for my running – I can’t imagine doing it without him at this point.

      • Yes! As a recent college grad, I’ve only recently come to realize the importance of mentorship and the organic way that advisor relationships can develop with people I meet. I think finding mentors/advisors in college was positioned too much under the umbrella of “networking” and always left me feeling a little slimy. (It’s a pity; college students could really benefit from that sort of informal and candid guidance!)

  • COinTO

    What about the concept of working to your strengths and building your team to be more than you could be as an individual (even if you worked on your weaknesses)? We talk about working to the strengths of a company from a product perspective. What if you are not a detail oriented person, for example. You could try to go over contracts, but could never do it was well as a fastidious person. Wouldn’t that be a skill you need to hire?

  • on the one hand, totally agree.. one ‘muscle’ i tried to exercise more recently is my brain, through meditation

    in my own words, “i suck at meditation” but my [email protected]:twitter pointed out that it’s not about sucking or being good at it, it’s about the practice of it…

    but in terms of startups, how do you feel about [email protected]:twitter ‘s recent post about outsourcing the stuff you don’t care about? http://cdixon.org/2012/04/22/outsource-things-you-dont-care-about/#comment-506554371

    • Meditation is another one on my list – working hard right now to build a habit of it.

      Re: Chris’ blog – I love the qualifier – “A lot of startups over outsource” – and I completely agree. It’s fine to outsource non-critical things, but the second you outsource something critical, you are on a path to sucking.

      • yup. agree. tech = in house. recruiting = in house etc. product/design = in house… accounting? 😛
        meditation is tough. as i said to Jerry, i suck at both the practice of and the discipline to do it, but i realized that doesn’t matter and now i just get a little better each time…
        i’ve also found that running/surfing is as much a meditative experience for me as sitting still… probably better

  • CliffElam

    I’ll tell you something else I’ve found – if you have runner legs other runners will notice them and talk to you about running.  They don’t know if you’re a good runner, only that you run.

    And if you have people or financial or whatever skills, then other people who value that will talk to you.  They don’t know if you’re good, only that you do it.


    PS – How can someone be bad at weightlifting?  Can’t build much muscle mass isn’t being bad at it – do you drop plates on your foot or something? :0-)

    • I’m not really bad at it, I just hate it.

  • Try stand up paddleboarding.  It’s great for the core, mimics many of the mind effects of long distance running, and is amazing for the upper body.  And you get to be outside on the water, not in a boring gym!  We’ll take you out on White Rock next time you’re in town.  

  • claycorbett

    If you want to become well rounded, you have to learn to exercise the weak points. I think everyone needs to find their own mental trick, but here’s one that works for me. When I suck at something, I try to focus on my rate of improvement instead of my absolute skill level. The good thing about looking at it this way is that improvement generally comes much faster when you suck at something.

  • Sometimes all it takes is a great personal trainer or mentor to inspire you and show you “what’s to like” about something.  I used to hate SEO, but only because the top line tactics were boring.  I learned some great tactics from great people and the enjoyment factor went up significantly.

  • >Great CEOs are are always building their musclesi know you meant this as an analogy, but i also think it can be taken literally. Running your company is physically like going 12 rounds with Tyson, and it helps to be be fighting fit to survive and thrive. Regular workouts – building your muscles, literally – are key.  

  • There is a big difference between being efficient and being effective. You can efficiently do the wrong things. You can inefficiently do the right things. Most people focus too much on the former. The latter is better. For a CEO it is critical to be effective because if you are not then the whole company may well be efficiently doing the wrong things. You can’t be effective without building new muscle so a big yes – build new muscle!

  • A lot has to do with keeping a consistent schedule, not just the activity itself. Since you’re often on the go, maybe improvise something within your existing schedule. Take with you one of those bars that mounts in door frames and do pull ups at hotels or wherever, even in some meetings sometimes, do a few. There’s also some $5 small rolling wheel that packs well with luggage and you can do abs the same way, anywhere. A few weeks into you’ll notice your muscles “talking” to you back and feeling better.
    My favorite remains building dry stacked rock walls outside. You’re in the nature, it’s you and rocks. not only you lift but have to think on how to puzzle them together to reduce the amount of gaps and also have a proper horizon. You think while you workout. What’s also rewarding in the end your results may likely be there for dozens of years to come.

  • davidthomas8779

    You’d probably be well served by 2-3 sessions with a swim coach to tune your mechanics.  I’ve been finding myself having to fight through the water which makes it much less enjoyable and I’m sure there is some kind of easyish fix that will make it more enjoyable so I’m going to get a professional to tell me what I’m doing wrong.  Comparing what a swim coach would charge me to what people pay me for professional services, it’s ridiculous for me not to hire an expert to fix me.

    • Yup – I had great help from JB Holston, the CEO of NewsGator, who helped me learn how to swim a lot better about a decade ago. It made a huge difference on my enjoyment of swimming.

  • DaveJ

    Sounds like the muscle we all need to work on is the one in our head.

    I do think there is a limit to how much “self-discipline” we can impose on ourselves. Convincing ourselves that we like something – or even can appreciate it – is very different than naturally liking it.

    • Totally agree. However, if you view mastery of something as motivating, you’ll appreciate even the things you don’t naturally like.

  • Cliff

    Seems we all do what we are good at.  Problem is that we do not really gain much from doing what we are good at.  In contrast to you, I like lifting weights.  If I work really hard and lift every day, I will make some relatively small gains over a month or two in how much I can lift but if I took up running instead, I bet I could make some relatively large gains in my endurance or how far I could run relatively quickly.  Having so much to gain and the prospect of rapid progress seems like it would be great incentive. 

    I think I was better at lifting than running so I made up this story in my head that lifting was more healthy because I wouldn’t damage joints and blah blah blah and subsequently, I wanted to be right so I keep lifting and don’t run much.

    I think it is similar with the things I deem more important in my business.  I think product development and business development are more important than accounting so I focus my energy in those areas.  In reality, it is all equally important.  I just keep re-running the excuse that I don’t have enough time and no matter how much I gain with accounting, my accountant is still going to do a much better job than I am because he deemed accounting was more important and has done the work to be really good at that.  I see the importance of building some muscle with accounting so that I understand it and I can question something that looks off. 

    At the bottom, I come full circle and conclude, I need to develop those puny muscles to achieve a little balance but seems my relatively small gains in my strengths keep me competitive and I should depend on others to stay competitive on the balance.  I agree, a great CEO is strong in all areas but I suspect only competition ready in a few.  What do you think?  An Olympiad isn’t competitive in every event but probably in much better shape than average folks in almost any Olympic event, right?

    • “Strong in all areas but only competition ready in a few” is a good line. A sales oriented CEO, for example, should understand product, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to develop the product. A product oriented CEO should be able to sell, but wouldn’t necessarily be the best sales person in the organization at a tactical level.

  • Tom Fakes

    Hey Brad, My wife and I recently started aerobic kickboxing (we went with I Love Kickboxing – branches everywhere). This is a great upper body workout, ok for legs, and fills in for sprint training for the aerobic system – and the hour goes by really fast.

    The key for me has always been doing something fun, otherwise I just don’t do it.

    • Kickboxing does sound fun – I’ll go find an I Love Kickboxing thing on my travels and try it.

  • I guess you don’t subscribe to the Marcus Buckingham theory of playing to your strengths: that the incremental value you create from making a strength that much stoinger is orders of magnitude greater than the value you get from making a weakness less weak.

    Or was this just an indirect way of asking for advise of how to diversify away from just running?

    • I believe that you should always play to your strengths, but at the same time work on your weaknesses. That’s part of the point of building muscles – if you want to be a great CEO (or leader) and you only develop in the dimensions of your strengths, you’ll fall very short of your potential.

  • Building is to Experience what Flexing is to Execution.

  • Brad, you don’t need glasses for Yoga…once your brain anchors the audible with the pose (glance at the blurs on either side of your mat for examples) you’ll be able to flow at any velocity/freq. And Richard Freeman’s classes 21st @ Pearl are almost too slow; cadence includes lots of background info the layperson can wrap around. corepoweryoga on 13th rocks it too and you’ll find a bunch of their studios in places where you travel in West…same programs, teachers are clones and it’s consistent, like going to 10 different In & Out burgers 🙂 Better than weights, more flexibility in ALL joints, and some kick-ass, stand on your hands kind of upper body strength. Just sayin.

    • I’ve tried so many times and it just doesn’t work. It’s sort of like snowboarding – I know what I’m supposed to do, I just can’t seem to do it.

      • I’m betting on your dislike of weight rooms, roid heads, and time-consuming progressive resistance (all assumptions, mind you), to give keep trying with different programs. 😉

        • You are a wise and correct man.

  • As founder/CEO this was writing for me. But now I try to blog everyday. It helped to let down my inhibitions and just doing it. Now I really don’t mind it, and also helps me to think though, and get feedback on, critical issues. Thanks for the post Brad.

  • Those calfs are like beach balls.

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  • I’m similar but the opposite way around: I’ve been hitting the gym three times a week doing weights very consistently for around 2 years now. I’ve also been swimming twice a week for about the same amount of time.

    This article triggered me to start running, and yesterday I ran 3km in 20 minutes as my first real run ever in my life except when I was forced to run at school. 24 hours later my legs are still hurting a lot, and it feels fantastic. This is something I’m aiming to add to the mix on a consistent basis (at least once a week), I think it helps me a lot.

    This of course also applies to non-exercise aspects, and I’m now writing weekly on my personal blog and meeting one or two startup founders here in Hong Kong to give advice weekly too. I’m primarily a coder, and I’m finding massive growth by stretching to all these other areas.

    Thanks for the inspiration Brad, this feels great.

    • Awesome – good job!

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