“Give about two (hours) every day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed for learning.” –Thomas Jefferson
This morning, sitting on a marble step near Rudulph Evans’ 19-foot-tall bronze statue of America’s quintessential renaissance man, I contemplated the approach of dawn on the National Mall. I’d risen early to run the six miles from Old Town Alexandria to the Jefferson Memorial, and although the chill had begun to stiffen my legs, I looked forward to continuing my workout by running with a group of our firm’s clients along a route highlighted by stops at iconic memorials to America’s history and ideals before ending on well-trod steps where, when I was nine years old, Dr Martin Luther King had mesmerized a nation.
Our run begins at the Jefferson Memorial because his advocacy of exercise makes it an appropriate place to start. What I like to reiterate at the start is the importance of taking time for reflection. When we start an organization, we have a personal view. But as our company grows, our focus turns outward to the organization, to our people. It is essential to take time to practice the values that are dear to us. In this way, by remaining true to ourselves, we can be better leaders within our organizations. We ask that leaders make this run together, because it gives them an opportunity to bond over a shared experience, to learn from each other.
At each monument, we discuss leadership and values. At the Washington Monument, we remind our clients that George Washington held so closely to the ideals of the Revolution that he quietly retired, rather than hold onto his military power for personal gain. Standing in the solemn arena of the World War II Memorial, we see what a common purpose can do for a nation. The war, combined with the Great Depression, required more of Americans, in terms of commitment to the Nation and to each other. The result was a common purpose to build a stronger country and generation. President Roosevelt’s leadership, during this time, stressed that all Americans were “in this” together. Success in America would not be judged by the success of some, but by the success of all Americans.
In my love of exercise, I find myself in good company - Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate for physical activity; “If the body be feeble,” he wrote, “the mind will not be strong.”
I’d spent my life in the Army, where physical fitness wasn’t just encouraged but required, so you might expect I would have been all too happy to let that part of my life fade away upon retirement. And admittedly, there are times when I’ve felt a slave to the early morning alarm and an inmate at the gym.
But in reality, despite years of forced fitness, I’ve always found solitude and regeneration in running, biking, lifting weights – sweating. Addicted to having an audio book on my IPod and a goal to work out hard, I long ago came to appreciate the feeling of accomplishment and comfortable exhaustion the came with each workout. No matter what happened for the rest of the day, once I’ve worked out, things seem better.
In many ways, I’ve built my life around exercise. Not coincidentally we live near a gym, my bike is handy, and I keep my workout clothes in a specially designed cabinet in our bathroom so I can dress efficiently and slip out without waking Annie – even though she’s typically up and out soon after I depart.
I like feeling better, like to believe that I’m healthier than I’d otherwise be, and am convinced it makes me a better leader. For me, the step from fitness to leadership is not a long one. I’m naturally intense and find that consistent exercise seems to file off some of the rough edges to my demeanor without reducing the energy or focus I find central to who I am.
Surprisingly, as I’ve gotten older, when my ability to carry a rucksack, climb a wall, or walk away from a jarring parachute jump is irrelevant to anything but my ego, exercise and fitness feel more important than ever. The opportunity to think, undistracted by the cacophony of 21st century life, and the challenge of making myself perform, help give me balance I might otherwise lack. You could argue that the time to workout is a gift I give myself.
But maybe, by being a bit better as a person and a leader, it's also a gift to my team, and just maybe, to the nation that Jefferson helped create, and that I love.
Stanley A. McChrystal was born on August 14, 1954, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1990, he became action officer for Army Special Operations, working in Joint Special Operations Command. In 1991, he saw action in the Desert Shield and Desert Storm tours. He was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008. He became top commander in Afghanistan in 2009, but resigned in 2010. These days he is the inspiring force behind The McChrystal Group and the author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, a New York Times Best-Seller.