Walk Your Way to More Effective Leadership
February 19, 2014 Editor 0
In 1978, my wife, Ginger, and I began daily 30- to 60-minute walks in our neighborhood in a weight-control effort. We found that we enjoy this activity together. It is the time when we talk about a full range of topics: family issues, financial discussions, career decisions, information exchange, and even neighborhood gossip.
Walking has become an important part of our lives, enriching us physically, mentally, spiritually and professionally. With Ginger often with me, I have walked in almost every major city in the United States and numerous smaller ones in the course of my everyday activities over the past 36 years. I have walked in some 45 countries in North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Walking has definite health benefits not only for weight control but also for improving diabetes, reducing high blood pressure, possibly delaying the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other positive outcomes. But I have also used my daily walks as a tool for communication and leadership, including team building.
For example, in 1989, when I was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to serve as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), most of the agency heads and staff in HHS knew little, if anything, about me, because this was my first appointment to a position in the federal government. So during my initial meetings with HHS staff, I invited them to join me on my morning walks in Washington and in the 10 cities around the country where we have our regional HHS offices. This proved to be very popular: Between 10 to 150 people showed up to walk in Denver, San Francisco, New York and elsewhere. During my walk in Dallas, one excited HHS employee informed me that I was the first HHS secretary he had met and talked with during his 23-year tenure in the department.
During these walks I learned a lot about the history of the department, ongoing policy debates and current departmental morale. And my staff learned a lot about me: my history, my goals for my tenure as HHS secretary, my value system, my communications skills, and my hobbies. Most important was the bonding that resulted between me and the leaders and staff of the department. We became an effective team.
In September 1990 when I released Healthy People 2000 — a guide to enable Americans to improve health behavior and strengthen prevention activities by the year 2000 — I decided to use the occasion to illustrate the many benefits of walking. I invited the public to join me for a walk through Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. More than 300 people turned out for this event.
Daily walking has added to my knowledge and enjoyment of cities, countries, landscapes, and scenes of everyday life around the world. I have found that early morning treks not only give me a head start on my day but also afford an opportunity to see and enjoy sights and sounds I wouldn’t otherwise experience.
A few years later, I served as chair of Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB) — a nonprofit organization formed to help alleviate the shortage of black doctors, nurses, and other health professionals in that country. MESAB’s scholarships also facilitated the enrollment of blacks in universities, thereby accelerating the dismantling of apartheid. On my visits, I often invited South African members of the MESAB board to join me for my morning walk. These excursions proved invaluable for discussions of our operations there. This simple activity enhanced our communications and effectiveness.
The benefits of walking can go beyond personal health, enjoyment, and communications. One such example is an event I organized in 1989: an annual 5-K run/walk on Martha’s Vineyard. Each August, the proceeds from our sponsorships help to support the island’s only (and very important) hospital.
For me, walking has proved to be a great way to promote a healthy lifestyle, while facilitating my communications skills and leadership efforts. My life has been and continues to be enhanced by this activity, which is readily available to almost all of us.
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