Ties Between Fitness and Leadership by Dr. Carol Himelhoch

Introduction by Russ Greene:

Dr. Carol Himelhoch is a professor of Management at Siena Heights University who started CrossFit in 2006. She recently published a monograph that evaluated the relationship between physical fitness and leadership. The study used Fight Gone Bad scores to assess fitness level. These steps may seem obvious to CrossFitters, but they’re ground-breaking in academia.

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To my knowledge, no published academic study has used a CrossFit benchmark workout to evaluate fitness. Normally academic studies on CrossFit use CrossFit workouts as training, but they discard the WODs in testing and assess fitness using VO2Max tests. The academics don’t explain why they consider gas-exchange a better indicator of fitness than work capacity. Sure, you’re running faster, lifting more, and you added 100 points to your Fight Gone Bad score, but how much air can you breathe while running on a treadmill?

Furthermore, little research has examined the relationship between physical fitness and leadership. And none, until Dr. Himelhoch, has looked at the relationship between physical fitness and the transformational leadership style. Dr. Himelhoch’s work is a pioneering preliminary investigation into a field that deserves greater attention. And now, here’s Dr. Himelhoch:

Ties Between CrossFit and Leadership

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MindBodyMed Press recently published my monograph Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training. After listening to a podcast in which I was interviewed by leadership blogger Scott Eblin (see Are You Fit to Lead?), Russ Greene graciously extended an invitation to post here on his blog. He asked me to share a little bit about my research, and the connections made by leaders in my study between CrossFit® and leadership.

Transformational leadership (Burns, 1978; Bass, 1985) is a theory that has been studied empirically more than any other, and is considered best in periods of rapid change and limited resources. Transformational leadership theory has four components, called the 4Is, per by Bernard Bass:

  • Idealized Influence – The leader serves as a role model
  • Inspirational Motivation – Leader establishes an encouraging and inspirational vision
  • Intellectual Stimulation – Leader stimulate associates to be innovative and creative
  • Individualized Consideration – Leader coaches, supports, and encourages associates

BACKGROUND: No prior studies have focused on the role of mind-body connections in their relationship to transformational leadership. Most studies examined the effects of leader behaviors, such as consequences like employee distress caused by abusive supervision (Barling et al., 2012; Burton, Hoobler, & Scheurer, 2012), how organizational performance suffers from toxic behaviors in the work environments (Kerfoot, 2007; Mathisen, Einarsen & Mykletun, 2011; Sutton, 2007), and how the leader’s decision making suffers from mental illness (Dreyer, 2008).

One category of research on transformational leadership behavior (TLB) concerns precursors, or antecedents. Such studies have included cynicism about organizational change and the social context, or peer-leader behaviors. Attwater and Yammarino (1993) looked at personal attributes as antecedents to TLB. They found that 28% of the variance in TLB was explained by personal attributes such as intelligence, warmth, conformity, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, emotional coping, behavioral coping, and athletic experience. However, athletic experience was not isolated or studied comprehensively.

Bernard Bass (1998) posited that personality characteristics predict TLB. Julian Barling and his colleagues (2012) added the antecedent leader’s psychological well-being, with well-being defined as the absence of anxiety or distress. However, the absence of distress as a definition of well-being is incomplete.

Colonel Christopher Douglas, the team leader of the U.S. Army's Security Force Advisory and Assistance Teams, with Afghan soldiers. Douglas owns CrossFit Saratoga with his wife Susan.

Colonel Christopher Douglas, the team leader of the Security Force Advisory and Assistance Teams, with Afghan soldiers. Douglas owns CrossFit Saratoga with his wife Susan.

PURPOSE: No empirical research has isolated the influence of the leader’s level of physical fitness on the extent to which the leader adopts a transformational leadership style. My research question was:

  • How do the lived experiences of avid exercisers intersect with their behavior as leaders?

METHODS: I used a qualitative approach called interpretive phenomenological analysis with a modified Delphi technique, which in layperson’s terms means that people are experts in making sense of their own lived experiences of phenomena. I interviewed five participants. To qualify for the study, the subjects must have supervised at least seven employees, have participated at least three times per week in CrossFit® classes for more than one year, and have earned a Fight Gone Bad® (FGB) score greater than 250. CrossFit® was useful in my research because the program is on the higher end of the exercise-intensity continuum, and the availability of benchmark FGB scores provisioned a common fitness measure. This selection criteria permitted me to isolate the construct of avid exercisers who were physically fit for this exploratory study.

PARTICIPANTS: The leaders ranged in age from 40-55, including two women and three men. The occupied the following positions:

  • President of a warehouse and installation firm
  • President of a nonprofit
  • Manager of medial software developers
  • Director of admissions for a medical school
  • Manager of pharmaceutical researchers


INPUTS TO TRAINING: Common inputs to their high-intensity training include inner focus and discipline, the need to put themselves in the “right” frame of mind, a willingness to step outside their comfort zones, getting “in the zone” during the WODs, strategizing and prioritizing what to emphasize and how to finish a WOD, and feeling driven to compete against themselves to the point at which there is nothing left in the tank. All participants experience “pre-workout stress” as they anticipate the WOD on any given day.

SUMMARY OF TRAINING OUTCOMES: Achievement and a sense of accomplishment was a strong theme. These leaders experience a sense of well-being and exhilaration, pride, and self-confidence. They enjoy belonging to an elite community of achievers, developed a sense of perseverance, and understand their limits as they tackle challenges that others may view as insurmountable.

HOW CROSSFIT® CHANGED THEM: Three common themes emerged in connection with how these leaders were changed through their CrossFit® practice. They become more self-confident. They gained a belief in themselves as capable of tackling insurmountable challenges. They also trust that practice, trial, and failures will lead to ultimate success.

CONNECTIONS BETWEEN CROSSFIT® AND LEADERSHIP: The leaders perceive strong ties between their training and their leadership. The sense of goal attainment and achievement is central to both. Mental grit and passion are necessary to be a strong CrossFitter and a transformational leader. To be successful in both, they cited the need to remain open to risk-taking and change. Finally, measurement is used as a motivational tool both in CrossFit® and leadership.

I hope this brief summary piques your interest to read my research in greater detail.

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Russ asked me how much research there is on the relationship between physical fitness and leadership in general, not just transformational leadership. Not much not that much has been done to my knowledge (and I searched a great deal for studies when starting my research). I mentioned one study in my blog from this week  (see http://carolrhimelhoch.com/2014/10/22/do-athletes-make-better-leaders/). There was also a 1999 study of 236 military cadets that examined them longitudinally from year 1 through year 4. Cognitive ability, physical fitness, prior influence experiences, and  self-esteem measured in Year 1 predicted those who would assume leadership positions in Year 4 (Atwater, Dionne, Avolio, Camobreco, & Lau, 1999).

Beyond that, I know of some studies connecting fitness to cognitive functioning, but it may be a stretch to infer that cognitive function is a prerequisite to effective leadership, despite its intuitive appeal.

In general, the research is sparse. Also, transformational leadership is the “Mack Daddy” to focus on, so to speak, for the reasons mentioned above.


Atwater, L. E., Dionne, S. D., Avolio, B., Camobreco, J. E., & Lau, A. W. (1999). A longitudinal study of the leadership development process: Individual differences predicting leader effectiveness. Human Relations, 52(12), 1543-1562.

Atwater, L.E. & Yammarino, F.J. (1993). Personal attributes as predictors of superiors’ and subordinates’ perceptions of military academy leadership. Human Relations, 46, 645-668.

Barling, J., Lys, R., Bergenwall, A., Byren, A., Dioniski, A., Dupre, K., Robertson, J., & Wylie, J. (2012). Being well, leading well? Leaders’ psychological distress predicts leadership behaviors. Paper presented at The University of Michigan, Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies on March, 23rd, Ann Arbor, MI.

Barling, J., Christie, A.M., & Hoption, C. (2010). Leadership. In S. Zedeck et al. (Eds). Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Vol. 1. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bass, B. M. (1998). Transformational leadership: Industrial, military, and educational impact. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bass, B.M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.

Burns, J.M. (1978). Leadership. NY: Harper and Row.

Burton, J.P., Hoobler, J.M., & Scheurer, M.L. (2012). Supervisor workplace stress and abusive supervision: The buffering effect of exercise. Journal of Business and Psychology, 27(3), 271-279.

Dreyer, E. C. (2008). Presidential leadership, illness, and decision making. Choice, 45(12), 2234-2234.

Kerfoot, K. M. (2007). Leadership, civility, and the ‘no jerks’ rule. Nursing Economics, 25(4), 233-4, 227.

Mathisen, G.E., Einarsen, S., & Mykletun, R. (2011). The relationship between supervisor personality, supervisors’ perceived stress and workplace bullying. Journal of Business Ethics, 99(4), 637-651.

Sutton, R. (2007). The no asshole rule. New York: Warner Business Books.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.


  1. In her study, Himelhoch seems to makes the same errors that many others have made before her. Particularly, she refers to CrossFit participants as “extreme exercisers” and regularly uses the the words “CrossFit” and “HIIT” interchangeably, while stating that other examples of “HIIT” are Insanity and P90X. Given the participants, this study would be more accurate if it referenced CrossFit directly, and eliminated the use of the term “HIIT,” except for referencing further research.

    Additionally, it would be curious to see if CrossFitter’s in leadership positions with below 250 FGB scores also report similar data. In other words, examining the ties between people who choose to do CrossFit and transformational leadership.

  2. Jeff, thanks for your feedback. CrossFit® is a specific trademarked name and HIIT is a general description that includes that and other forms, each which is unique in its own right. CrossFit® athletes are on the higher end of the exercise-intensity continuum. I used the term “extreme” in the context of explaining how the research design isolated athletes who are very fit when compared to the general population. I share your curiosity concerning those with lower FGB scores, and intend to pursue this as I move forward with my research.

  3. Pingback: Peak 360 CrossFit, in South Miami, FL - WOD - CrossFit & Leadership | Peak360Fitness.com

  4. My wife and I own a small plumbing service business (7 employees). We’re certain that our Crossfit lifestyle has contributed significantly to our continued growth and success; we’ve advanced steadily in spite of years of economic recession, and are currently wrapping up another record year. We average 5 to 6 workouts per week, continually resetting goals and tracking our athletic progress, just as we do in our business. I very much look forward to reading your book!

  5. Hey Carol, thanks for taking the time to respond. Although CrossFit is a trademarked name, I am not certain if that prevents you from being able to cite it in your research, particularly if your study isolates athletes from that population. Perhaps Russ Greene or Dale Saran could provide some insight into that area.

    I agree that each of the programs cited in your research are unique in their own right. That said, the information you present clearly references CrossFitter’s, and not participants in any other form of HIIT. My point of contention is that your paper seems to be attributing it’s findings to all forms of HIIT, when only CrossFitter’s were studied. Future studies may prove those findings, and it would certainly be an interesting hypothesis going forward, but at this point the broad links you are making seem to be premature.

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