The Sporty Executive - Feel the Heat?

The way executives look is seen to reflect their inner qualities, writes professor Janne Tienari.

Janne Tienari, 26.05.2016

Looks matter, even in executive management.

It is a tough job. Pressures from owners, colleagues, managers and employees as well as customers, competitors, analysts, and the media make the work of executives complicated and at times daunting, too. The executive job today is uncertain and its preconditions change fast.

It makes sense to be in good shape.

High expectations direct executives towards a healthy and fit lifestyle preoccupied with physical exercise, nutrition, and rest to balance out the demands of the job.

The pursuit of health and fitness may take noticeably passionate forms. Pushing one’s limits in exercising and comparing oneself to an athlete is not unheard of amongst corporate executives.

While health, fitness, and sports are a way for people who are under immense pressure to relieve stress, executives’ lifestyles are mirrored in their appearance.

Executives today look youthful and slim. Most importantly, they look sporty. While results and competence still determine how executives are appraised, appearances too are (sometimes inadvertently) evaluated when decisions on recruitment and promotions are made.

Preoccupation with health and fitness is not coincidental. The way executives look is seen to reflect their inner qualities. Youthful, slim, and sporty executives signify the right qualities for the fast, complex, and unpredictable business in the global economy: energy, endurance, and control.

Radiating energy is crucial. The ability to get excited and, in consequence, to engage others in taking on challenges is valued highly.

Executives must also project endurance or stamina, like a triathlonist or a marathon runner. They must demonstrate the capability to deliver.

Most importantly, sporty looks signify that the executive is in control. Self-control is inscribed in the healthy and fit body, and it is recognized as competence. The assumption is that he who is able to control the self, is able to lead others, too.

The implications of these assumptions are sometimes pretty astonishing. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a couple of years ago, titled “Want to be CEO? What’s your BMI?”

The message was loud and clear: studies quoted by WSJ show that slim and sporty receive more positive feedback on their leadership ability than their not-so-slim peers. Excess weight seems to convey weakness or a lack of control in the eyes of others.

BMI or body-mass-index is a common measure of body fat. Leadership professor Barry Posner was quoted in WSJ saying that he is unable name a single overweight Fortune 500 CEO.

Yet, it is not looks per se that matter. The right appearance offers the basis for performing executive management in the right way. These performances are a strategic issue for companies and they are also crucial for executives’ personal branding.

Executives today are highly visible. They must be prepared to step into the limelight at a moment’s notice. Their performances are scrutinized by stakeholders. Live or online, being photogenic helps.

There are, of course, differences between industries and businesses in terms of the ‘ideal’ executive.

Looks and performances remain a contextual or cultural issue.

What is valued at Wall Street or in the City of London, where aggressively sporty executives are constantly on the move, does not necessarily resonate elsewhere.

The trick is to stand out while fitting in. Nonetheless, there is a lot evidence to suggest that we are all becoming more like the hungry bankers: more preoccupied with how our performance looks and more determined to build the right body for it.

In principle, it is a positive thing that decision-makers are in shape. It is reassuring that executives take care of themselves and their health.

However, there is a darker side to preoccupation with looks, performances, and lifestyles.

Potential risks include judging people and their performance disproportionately on the basis of how they look.

As organizations today are employing programs and initiatives that target a systematic approach to managing the health of their members, privacy issues come to the fore: who gets to determine the lifestyle of organizational members and on what premises? Who has the right to monitor people’s whole lives?

When health and fitness are seen as a personal choice, by default, those who do not fit the mold are pushed to the margins or doomed into oblivion. Recruitment provides a means for making sure that only the ‘right’ bodies gain entry to key positions. Yet, any decent headhunter will tell you not to rely on your gut feeling when making such important decisions.  

Monitoring the bodies of others continues after recruitment. Establishing control over people’s lives in and through performance appraisal becomes a managerial prerogative. And overemphasis on appearances may lead to dodgy outcomes.

Ultimately, this can lead to distorted talent pools and homosociality at the top. People have a tendency to seek the company of those who are considered similar in some significant way. Extreme health and fitness orientation can become the basis for such homosociality and for exclusion of those who do not match the athletic criteria.

The outcomes may well be even more puzzling. A Swedish colleague mentioned something that can be a sign of things to come if the trend of athleticism intensifies. While the term orthorexia refers to extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy, it has been extended in Sweden to denote obsession with a healthy and fit lifestyle in general.

Rumor has it that Swedish headhunters are now ticking the ‘no orthorexia’ box when compiling their shortlists for their clients. Over-athleticism is viewed as a distinct recruitment risk. There are executives who exercise so much that they are no longer seen to have the energy to do their jobs properly.

To conclude, while health and fitness are wonderful things, there is no need for executives to train like athletes. Everything in moderation.  

Finally, a disclaimer and an invitation to continue the discussion. These reflections on the sporty executive are based on research, consultancy reports, and media debate in the West. It is based on research carried out in Europe and North America, and on discussions with executives in the Nordic countries in particular.

The question is: how is Western preoccupation with sporty executives seen in Asia or other parts of the world? What are the alternatives?

The sporty executive’s checklist

  • Exercise when possible.
  • Watch your diet, but not too slavishly.
  • Make sure you get enough rest.
  • Don’t overdo it.
  • Fit your appearance and performances into context.
  • Avoid judging others by the way they look.
  • Question processes that lead to homosociality.

Janne Tienari is Professor of Management and Organisation at Hanken School of Economics. With Professor Susan Meriläinen he has just published a book in Finnish on management and appearances, titled Palvelukseen halutaan ajokoira – johtajan ulkonäkö ja esiintyminen (Siltala, 2016). 

Photographs by Touko Hujanen.

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