Survey Results: It’s Hard To Respect A Tactical Leader Who Isn’t Physically Fit

Photo Cred: Task and Purpose


In a recent survey, we asked you whether you can respect a tactical leader who is out of shape, and it’s effect on the fitness culture of the unit.

The answers were abundantly clear – an unfit leader is hard to respect, negatively effects unit culture and reduces adherence to fitness standards.

Most responses implied that the nature of the job (Military, LE, Fire/Rescue) demands a fit leader, even if they are not necessarily on the “front lines” of the job. Rank doesn’t provide an excuse for leadership to opt out.

Several respondents stated that other qualities, such as a high level of job competency (tactical and technical proficiency) and care for the troops can mitigate an unfit leader. However, the unfit leader has an obstacle to overcome as their physical performance and appearance reduces overall confidence in command.

Developing a culture of fitness which adheres to the “burden of constant fitness” is challenging. Administrative hurdles and low physical fitness standards allow for the lowest common denominator.

Leadership can provide the example and tools for job-specific fitness proficiency, or they can enable the problem.

Below are representative individual comments we received for each survey question:


QUESTION 1: As a Tactical Athlete (Military/LE/Fire Rescue), can you respect a leader who isn’t fit?

"To accurately answer the question, 'fit' is a subjective standard. Must they only be able to pass a military physical fitness test? Must they greatly exceed the standard? Do they have to have washboard abs? Personally, no, I have less respect for a leader that can't or barely passes a physical fitness test. I'm almost 43 years old, I have 15 years of active-duty service, have acquired a few injuries that require me to modify my fitness regimen, but I still train. I do it to set an example to younger soldier, officers, and warrant officers. I do it to be an example to enlisted and NCOs. And I do it for myself. I don't want of be a broken and fat slob. I want to be able to play with kids as I age and be a role model for them to stay active. It's a bit of drawn out response, but the bottom line is a leader that can't maintain their fitness does not command respect. If they can't maintain a base-level to pass a fitness exam, his can they possibly expect their subordinate to follow suit? And if one their subordinates fail a PT test, the leader has no credibility to counsel them and set them on the correct path."
"No, I cannot. As an active duty Army officer and Medical Doctor, I also believe it is unethical."
"BLUF- no. Fitness is related to discipline, a leader can have the most squared away haircut and uniform, but if they look unfit all else is for naught. My two cents."

“Respect them as a person sure but as a leader unfortunately not. As a leader you should be the example that the team follows, that is not to say you should be an Olympian but you should at the very least demonstrate to your subordinates the importantance of health and fitness.”

"Being an infantryman it is imapritive to be in good physical health and be "fit". So no. I can't. And I hate seeing "broken" squad leaders and above talking about how back in their day this and that. If you can't lead from the front respect is going to be very hard to gain. How can you tell someone to do something that's not in your wheelhouse?"
"No. Fitness is not everything, and I have known good leaders who were pretty weak physically. However, in a combat unit, it is a soldier's nature to view a leader, who cannot keep up with his soldiers, a leader who falls out of runs or shuns PT because he is "too busy," to view this kind of leader as a someone who cannot be trusted to keep his soldiers alive during combat."
"Depending on the role of leadership they play. If the leader is directly incharge and leading PT, then they should be able to walk the walk."
"Yes. The leaders may have other qualities that make him respectable which overshadow fitness."
"Not really. As a true leader you lead from the front in every aspect of life. Fitness is in direct correlation to great leaders. I'm not saying you have to run a six minute mile or look like Arnold, but you should be capable of dragging a downed person and look respectable in a uniform. Although I have met some very knowledgeable personnel in the military & now LE who were not in shape. I never wrote them in the OPORD's to do much because I did & do consider them to be a liability to themselves & those around them."
"If they are injured and have slipped and there is the attempt yes respect. Lazy without portion control or eating shit...NO"
"Fitness is always going to matter. A big difference I've found between the military and the police are that while the military has 'leaders', policing seems to have 'supervisors' and 'managers' who are further removed from the front line. A manager might be great at pushing paper, and know how to support investigations, and fitness may no longer be a significant part of their job. That said, a patrol sergeant's fitness would have a greater impact on my respect for them as it is a required part of the job."
"I can respect an unfit leader if their personal conduct, competency, and focus on men and mission is above reproach but not otherwise. Any leader stepping into a position in a tactical unit who is unable to meet the standards he places for his men is making his life far harder than it should be and by building obstacles for himself that will make his job far more difficult and detract from the units overall function until he either meets the standards or overcomes the obstacles his poor fitness has created."
"I don't want to give an unwavering no, but it's difficult to look up to someone who can't even take care of themselves. Fitness only takes an hour a day and a halfway decent diet. If they don't have the discipline to do that, I don't think I can really trust them."
"No, A leader sets the standards. I find it hard to follow a person who i know cannot maintain physical standards for themselves."
"If Fit= Army Standard and unfit= Below Army Standard, then no I cannot. But if Fit= something greater than the army standard that would align more with MTI's philosophy then I would still respect that leader for not being functionally fit all else being equal. Ie does he have strong attributes across other domains."
"NO, but what is the standard of measuring fitness? Is it some obscure basic physical fitness test or is it having the physical ability to meet the physical demands of the unit the leader leads?"
"No, but my definition of fitness changes with time. Older guys in higher leadership positions (40+) get a bit of a leeway on what is acceptable given the nature of aging and the injuries they likely accumulate over the course of a career."
"I cannot. On a personal level, I know that I can outperform them, and a leader that cannot perform, almost by definition, is not a leader. On a professional level, if juniors are expected to maintain the physical fitness standard, seniors should, even more so. Rank should not give privilege above the standard."
"I think it is possible to have respect for a leader that isn't fit, however it would take a unique individual to accomplish this. I as a LE Trainer feel it is important to not only fill my role but to look like I can fill my role and set the example and support the officers I train as much as possible."


QUESTION 2: Can a leader, who isn’t fit personally, effectively require or enforce training/fitness standards on subordinates?

"I believe that it would be a difficult task for a leader to enforce standards they themselves do not follow. A great deal of soldiers with injuries still attempt to maintain their fitness levels, modification just need to be made to prevent injury or facilitate a movement. I personally would never take training or diet advice from a leader that is overweight and unable to maintain a base-level of fitness. Exceptions can be made for some circumstances, such a severe chronic pain."
"No, that leader cannot because he/she is not leading by example and therefore has no solid foundation to stand on."
"Again, no- this screams hypocrisy. I don't believe this requires an explanation."
"No. Lead from the front in this regard."
"It's difficult. The lack of motivation stemming from leader is like a sickness. Once it starts to spread its hard to stop. It's hard trying to motivate the guys when their "leader" can't even pass a pt test."
"A leader can only really enforce a fitness standard that he can personally meet. If he barely passes his PT test, his subordinates will think it is acceptable for them to have that same fitness level. If he chastises his subordinates for having a sub-standard fitness level, but he himself cannot meet that fitness level, his credibility as a leader has gone out the window in my book."
"It becomes more difficult because the leader loses credibility in that realm. However, if the leader displays genuine effort to become fit, sometimes they can be better than one who is already fit."
"No they cant. From my experience they will either set unrealistic standards based on what they think they used to be able to do, or avoid PT all together."

“To a limited degree. We all must maintain a certain minimal physical fitness standard, which isn’t very difficult to achieve with daily physical training. It is hard to believe that a leader who isn’t fit (either with physical standards or weight/height) can enforce those standards. If those aren’t met, then it stands to follow that the regulatory measures in place won’t be enforced as stringently as so many other important standards which make us the fighting force we should be.”

"They can bark orders, but they will not be nearly as effective in motivating their subordinates as a leader who has put in the work. On the contrary, I have noticed that I become very interested in beating my leaders when they are more fit than me."
"Yes they can, but no they shouldnt. Leading from the front and being a rolemodel for anyone anywhere in the ranks should be a priority. Especially in terms of fitness and tactical readiness."
"Yes and no. If that person's Rank and position gives in the authority to dictate physical fitness standards then of course that is within their right to do. If that leader is not supported by trained and proficient mid-level leadership, however, then most likely physical training that is implemented won't be effective."
"No. Standards are to be enforced on all personnel. That includes those in leadership roles. If they are above the standard on fitness, which other standards are they choosing to neglect?"
"This is a double edged sword. Yes, in any organization you are required to respect the position even if that means not respect the individual. A leader that has high standards should ALWAYS adhere to those standards himself/herself. If they chose to exclude themselves from the standards they are showing poor leadership qualities and subordinates will have less respect for them. I firmly believe in order to lead you need to be the example and be technically and tactically proficient."


QUESTION 3: Is it possible to have a strong fitness culture without leadership’s support, or without leadership’s personal commitment to fitness?

"Yes, it is. Fitness is an individual's desire to perform. In my current situation, my commander is not fit, yet I have a personal desire to as well as professional obligation to be in shape. This attitude can spread through a unit if someone dedicated time to explain the benefits of fitness. Of course, there will always be those that only maintain a level that enables then to barely pass a PT test. Then are a few studs. And most of this is not dictated by a leader. Hope it helps!"
"Absolutely. Whether or not the leadership supports a strong fitness culture, individuals and teams have a a responsibility to maintain their fitness to accomplish the mission."
"I believe it is possible. As an active duty service member, I get paid to do PT and to maintain physical fitness. Outside of fitness industry, I cannot think of another profession where an employer pays employees to work out."
"Possible but perhaps unlikely; each individual should have their own strong work ethic and personal discipline, however, if leadership does not support or commit themselves to it, they may view the subordinate's culture as threatening and look to place equally disturbingly unfit people in additional roles of authority, or find any means possible of undermining the culture, i.e., uniforms in the gym, or off limit times for "maintenance" or "administrative action" or "support personnel gym hours", etc... Maybe a little tin foil hattishness going on, but weak people placed in positions of power sometimes tend to do strange things to exert that power."

“Yes, I had a young buck sergeant that would go out of his way to set the standard and out-perform his leaders. He’s now a First Sergeant…for good reason.”

"Sure, it just requires that a culture of accountability, and personal responsibility outside of the leadership chain."
"Yes. I think the military, army in particular, needs to place more emphasis on fitness. I think every company should have a fitness expert who plans out each platoons pt schedule. the army has master fitness trainers but it's a joke and mainly just an ncoer bullet."
"Impossible, IMO. Having a strong fitness culture is absolutely dependent on "leadership by example." If the soldiers see their NCOs and officers busting their ass daily at PT, they will have perceived what "right" looks like and most will aspire to reach that same fitness level without being told to. If the leader does not lead fitness by example, then he has inadvertently set the standard for the rest of his unit. Nowhere is the saying "do as I say not as I do" more bullshit than in a combat unit where fitness is matter of life and death."
"If you have others who people respect & look up to in training or other positions they can actually save a unit/organization but for the most part w/out top down buy-in fitness & training will suffer."
"No. Without leadership's personal dedication to fitness, it will not be made a priority. It will get put to the wayside rather than developed as a characteristic of the team. When leadership values fitness, time is taken for fitness. Work hours are dedicated to it, space is made for it, and everyone will be provided the opportunity and resources for it. Without it, everyone will be left to their own time and resources making it inconvenient and isolated."
"This depends on the command level of the leader. Without a leader's active role in cultivating this culture, individuals will pursue the fitness level they desire, often based on former units (if not personal motivation). The higher the leader's lack of commitment, it falls on subordinate leaders' role in their unit's physical fitness. Most high-performing tactical units can only complete it's missions very well if in good physical condition, allowing for periods of long days and nights where proper nutrition and sleep cannot be met. Good leaders will ensure their teams meet their mission, and bear the load with their subordinates. This said, I can see much higher-level leaders not being the PT studs as their subordinates. But all must meet the standards, an the best commanders at all levels should meet and demand that all meet the same requirements."
"You can be a driven individual, and you can recruit like-minded individuals to your cause, creating better opportunities and environment for everyone. Fitness culture leadership starts at the top, honestly, and is just not there, in terms of the Army PT standards. Until those change, we will always come up short on fitness culture, minus those individuals. We have a new occupational test, but it's ridiculous, too. The trap bar? really? I have had to supplement Army fitness training with my own for 14 years now. The only way I've managed to maintain fitness is by my own programming."
"Yes, but it does present an obstacle. Leadership that embraces and promotes fitness are preferable to those that do not. A leader can promote fitness and be unfit by providing time and facilities to train and a leader can also be a negative influence regardless of level of personal fitness by being apathetic toward fitness or making it difficult to develop a culture of fitness. In other words, I would rather my leader be fit and pro-fitness but I would take an unfit leader who knows the importance of fitness and accomadates the team over a fit leader who relegates fitness as the responsibility of the individual."
"No, Leaders need to be fit. Its simple. Its a warrior class, no one will totally respect a leader who is unfit. It breads the "well if he isn't doing it, I'm not doing it" mentality"
"Yes but it depends on the level of leadership that does not support it. If you have a brigade commander that does not support but battalion commander does then you can still have a very strong fitness culture. This applies at all levels of the Army. A leader in an organization that does not have support will have to work harder creating that culture and being creative to have his soldiers reach the next level physically."
"Yes. I am a lower level team leader in a career fire-rescue department. In the past, we have had some very obese, and out of shape chiefs and officers. A number of us already had a strong personal commitment to fitness, and trained on a daily, both on and off duty. Our shift lead from the bottom up, and the obese/unfit officers and chiefs knew they had to either leave us alone, or join in during our PT times."
"Absolutely. Often times you will find this in units where there is a high sense of pride amongst the soldiers as individuals refuse to let themselves not be at the top of their game. Sadly, this happens quite often we will see high performers succeed in spite of the leadership and not because of it."
"Yes. The fire service is made of micro communities, starting with each shift, each fire house, each battalion, and each department. A particular shift at a firehouse could be fit together... Like a fit family. The greater the community buy-in, the easier it'll be to maintain the fitness culture within each micro community."

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