Reducing Stress Through a Fit Leaders' Lifestyle


by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Here’s a self-admission: I am on Twitter – a lot. It’s been life-changing for me as an educator.  Connecting, sharing, challenging, being challenged, I feed off of it. However, I have always struggled with a Twitter trope that truly boggles my mind. You know the one. It’s the “give everything of yourself for kids, each and every day, at-all-costs, whatever it takes” approach to education. That kind of education martyrdom is, well, something. It’s noble; I’ll give it that. Although I can tell you what it’s not; it’s certainly not healthy and it’s most definitely not sustainable. Beyond being short-sighted, even counterproductive, its damage to the educator’s well-being, family health and professional standing can be devastating. It’s like the old saying, “she’s a burst of energy!” Indeed, she is, but when the “burst” flames-out, when the fire ceases to rage, what are kids left with – what’s left of her? That last question transcends the 280-character limit of Twitter. It shakes its head at the pie-in-the-sky memes that fill our Twitter timelines, which, admittedly, temporarily inspire before plummeting us to unshakeable depths as we desperately try to maintain an ideology and work ethic that is just-not-sustainable. Soon we start to look at those messages of inspiration, those battle-cry memes, and doubt has crept-in. We find ourselves habitually hitting the “like” button because that’s what we should be doing, that’s how we should be thinking, but the reality is, we are tired; we are sick; we are thinking of abandoning a profession we once felt so much intense passion for – we are broken.

I know. I have been there.

Before my principalship at Mount Pleasant High School in Mount Pleasant, TN, I was an English teacher at Maplewood High School in Nashville, TN. Maplewood is located in East Nashville, sits at the heart of merciless poverty and has historically struggled to reach students who are academically behind. My heart bled for this school. My passion ran deep for this school. My alcoholism and dependency crystalized at this school. I was coming early and staying late. I was putting the needs of the school, its children, its community before any of my own. Drinking became an easy, acceptable coping mechanism—perpetual relief from the daunting reality that I am no savior. Luckily for me, I met a woman (who’d eventually become my wife), a teacher, too, who would help me create a plan to get my life back on track. Eventually, I quit drinking all-together, devoted much of my time to weightlifting and things began to drastically change for the better.

Sobriety brought a blank canvas. I was recreating my physical, mental and emotional health. Back then, I was in the early stages of my doctoral program, so I had “free” access to the university’s gym. I set an immediate goal of losing beer-belly fat, so began the extremely humbling process of hitting the gym three times a week. What I found out after those embarrassingly painful first few gym visits, however, was an almost instant improvement in my entire physiology. I was feeling, looking, sleeping, even thinking better! It was upon this realization that the Fit Leaders ideology was born: Live Better. Lead Better.

Never been a big fan of self-help or motivational gurus, but Tony Robbins’ mantra "Progress equals happiness" rang true after every session spent bettering myself in the gym. If life is our constant, physical battle against gravity – literally keeping ourselves off the ground –then each session in the gym for me equated to grabbing the next rung on the ladder of life. I’m also a Libra (a 1979 version!) and Libras are notoriously desperate for balance. The insatiable quest for a harmonious life keeps me in a constant state of reflection. Spending the last twelve years diving headfirst into servant leadership, pushing through the relentless surf of public education, I have learned one of the most valuable lessons. It takes miles to turn an aircraft carrier, and as famed motivational author and speaker John Gordon will tell you, most people breakdown, quit running a marathon at mile twenty. Before I changed my thinking and embraced a Fit Leaders lifestyle, I nearly let the work and my approach to it break me.

Originally, my choice to embrace the gym and a  Fit Leaders lifestyle, putting myself through the consistent rigors of intense weight training, had nothing to do with the audacious goal of saving schools over $163 million annually. The School Leaders Network study, ‘The High Cost of Principal Turnover," says that 25,000 principals leave their schools each year, "leaving millions of children's lives adversely affected" and "50 percent of new principals quit during their third year in the role." ( My plans were admittedly not that grandiose. I was in desperate need of a lifestyle change and found the Fit Leaders lifestyle sharpened areas I never would have imagined. I expected some stress relief, measured through decreased blood pressure, and I most certainly welcomed a more fit physique.  What I just did not account for was the unexpected boosts in my overall mood, idea-generating, relationship-building, goal-perseverance let alone the potential, when multiplied across school systems, to spotlight the correlation between leaders’ fitness and school operating budgets. For me, adding iron to the opposite side of my Libra scale not only restored that desperate need for balance but it also awoke a synergetic sleeping giant.

But you don’t have a drinking problem. And you’re not serving in a school with 98% economically disadvantaged students. You are asking yourself, does any of this even remotely apply to me? It’s a fair question. Renowned Leadership Diamond creator Peter Koestenbaum, Ph.D. pulls no punches in his explanation, “leadership success is tied to survival.”

Survival. Let that word sink in.

Doubling-down on our own well-being increases the chance of both personal and professional survival. The Fit Leaders lifestyle helps build healthy, sustainable leaders capable of lifting our nation’s most precious payload – Education. It’s time we stop accepting the almost 30% principal turnover rate as “the $163 million cost of doing business” and instead do something about it, improving schools from the inside out, one healthy teacher and principal at a time.

Instead of ending with the above claim and hoping we would all see the significance of self-care and stress-management as vital to not only our own lives but those we serve, we are growing Fit Leaders, LLC to actually do something about it. We understand that leaders from all walks of life are busy, terribly busy. It’s the busyness of our lives that keeps us from focusing on or changing what ultimately matters most—our health. We set a goal for all of us to Boycott Average, which is more than a platitude, more than an inspirational meme. We want genuine change. We want lives changed. Self-care is vital, which means Fit Leaders is more than a movement; it’s a lifestyle. Our Boycott Average mantra is a revolutionary approach to accepting author Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning mindset: What can the world expect from me? We absolutely must prepare ourselves by truly taking care of ourselves, holistically and consistently. And as daunting and nebulous as it sounds, you are not alone on this journey. The first-steps may be challenging but they are fun because of the newness and excitement of a lifestyle change is fresh and invigorating, but when entropy and the callousness of consistency attack your motivation, your Fit Leaders family will be right there with you. We say we are Better Together, and we mean it. We say Live Better. Lead Better. and we’re proving it. Now let’s Boycott Average and get you healthy – the world is depending on it!


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