Cross-Training To Strengthen Leadership Skills

Today’s cross-training moment is a guest post from David Tumbarello. When he’s not guest blogging for Let’s Grow Leaders, David provides data and writing solutions in the health care field. The leisure activity he enjoys the most is coaching children in the art of creative writing. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cross-Training to Strengthen Skills

I was injured – it was another summer when I couldn’t run as much as I would have liked. My body told me it had to exercise but my Achilles wouldn’t comply. The solution was as old as the sport – begin another exercise and work out different muscles. I pulled down the bicycle and began biking around the lake. It was my summer of biking.

In athletics this is called cross-training. Instead of repeatedly using the same muscles every day, the athlete develops complimentary muscles. Instead of strengthening the running muscles, it was time to let those rest and develop the biking muscles.

I think about leadership muscles. One leader might be strong with her project management muscles. One leader might excel with coaching. Another with leading in creative purists. And another might be good with running a successful meeting. Those are strengths and leaders should maximize their strengths.

But occasionally, a leader should take a sabbatical from their primary leadership muscle. Step back from the typical routine. Begin to cross-train. Instead of running meetings, a leader with this strength should delegate the responsibility. While resting that muscle, the leader can act as a secretary or take notes on the white board or volunteer for a committee. Instead of mentoring, a leader can take a year off and find a way to improve the feedback loop for the enterprise. Let one muscle rest. Let another grow.

A leader at church recently said that there are years when the land produces an abundance of crops and years when it must lie fallow. It’s a cycle. The resting land will reward the farmer the following year. In the same way, leaders should consider resting certain muscles which will allow those practices to come back stronger.

With cross-training, the leader will benefit by learning a new practice — and with new eyes. And then upon returning to the first strength, after some time off, the leader will be able to see that old routine with new eyes. Strengthen, rest, and repeat.

Posted in Career & Learning and tagged , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Great insight. I ended up cross-training without planning to do so, in changing jobs while getting my doctorate. Time constraints along with my desire for sanity meant I couldn’t work the hours I’d been doing in a 5-year leadership role and also go to school almost full-time. In the job I took, I have less responsibility, which I generally crave. Yet I’m beginning to see that the things I am responsible for allow me to be a keen observer of some interesting dynamics in the organization. I can also talk to people differently because I’m not their boss … and thus see how feedback affects employees and what types seem to work. The skills I’m exercising will absolutely make me a better leader when the degree is over.

    • Terri, Your story raises a very important angle. Sometimes, we need to “cross-train” into a position of less responsibility for various reasons, in order to move forward in the direction we most want to pursue. Many hesitate to do this for fear of the optics of going “backwards.”

      I fully agree that you learn from every angle of the organization. Being a follower is great leadership training. I have a few friends who “stepped backwards” for very important worklife balance reasons, one who’s kids needed him more… and the other who’s wife had serious cancer. Once that season was over, each of them got back on the “track.” Both now hold substantial executive roles, after several promotions. They key to great cross-training is staying open to learning.

    • Exactly, Terri! Eyes open differently when you concentrate on something else. And I like your attitude that leadership is travelling along a road, not the destination.

  2. I appreciate the link to the post about my recent Sabbatical. Yes, it’s important for leaders to step back, rest, and let others lead. I like David’s idea of letting others lead while the lead acts as secretary or just another group member. This is one of the best ways to help others grow.

    • Thank you, Dan, for the insight. And the neat thing about letting others take the wheel is that you can observe nuances of their leadership behavior. So their “way” is not going to be the same as your way, and this is a good thing. The observant leader should invite change so that the learning never ends!

  3. I have found this is one of the most difficult things for any of us to do. We feel as if we cannot be away. The sign of a mature organization is found when the leader is away and things still get done at a high level. It is often fear that keeps us from starting a new venture and the same fear keeps us from stepping away, if only for a few days.

    • My analogy is muscles. And those muscles require rest. They grow after consistent workouts, and then rest. The cool thing about cross training is that you intentionally allow yourself to let one muscle rest while you work out complimentary ones. I think about your comment and I wonder if a leader is ever fully resting. I mean, even when you are on vacation, you are connected with other people, family, loved ones. During these interactions, you still speak with compassion, try to help others, find ways to solve problems together — surprise (!) that is the work of a leader. Even on vacation. And then coming back to the original routine, upon returning to “work,” the brain is engaged differently and your eyes see things differently. That is another reason cross training works. Thanks for moving the conversation, Dave.

  4. Thanks Karin for sharing such wisdom. Leading is more than being in the front. It’s also about being in the back, the support role. It’s about modeling for others, its about being open to new techniques, and it’s about growing in another direction, “flexing muscles.” There are so many benefits to letting others take the lead. I’ve taken the lead in my own business and backed off at my day job. I’m learning and growing by leaps and bounds and I love it!

    Sue Bock

    • Sue, it sounds like you are on an amazing adventure. How exciting. Thanks for sharing your story. The undercurrent of this discussion is not lost on me… I seldom have guest posts. Today, I had a great one from David… it started a whole new conversation. Another side effect of stepping back.

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