Improving your Organization’s Fitness: Learning from the Army’s challenges and opportunities

By Colonel (Retired) Donna Brazil, Ph.D. , Sunday, January 01, 2017

Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. 

US Army Field Manual 6-22

The definition of leadership above is my favorite because of the inclusion of the last few words… “improve the organization,” a very important aspect of the way the US Army does business.  It is not enough to simply influence followers to accomplish a mission, true leadership includes improving the organization.  With the launch of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) effort in 2008 and the extension to Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2) in 2012, the Army has indeed endeavored to improve the organization by improving the resilience and wellbeing of its workforce and their families. 

The Army launched this effort after nearly a decade of persistent conflict.  The wear and tear from the stress of combat deployments and an extremely high operating tempo was evident across the force.  Soldiers and their families were suffering and something needed to be done.  While remaining committed to assisting soldiers who suffered from the traumas of combat, the Army embarked on the CSF campaign as a preventative training program designed to better prepare its people for the challenges that lie ahead (Casey, 2011).  This comprehensive and holistic program identifies five dimensions of fitness each of which needs to be tended to and developed if a person is to be psychologically fit and resilient: family, social, spiritual, emotional and physical. (Army, 2013)  We can all learn from this Army initiative.

Family and social fitness are important, because as humans, we are social beings and have a need to be connected to others.  In his book, Living a Life that Matters, Harold Kushner shares from his experience as a rabbi that a major concern for people at the end of their life is not the question of whether they made enough money or if they were successful but rather if they were significant to other people.  Quite simply, mattering to other people matters to us (Kushner, 2001).  Being connected to family that both support us and rely on us makes us matter to others and gives us the strength and motivation to work through challenges.  Likewise, having friends who we can count on and share our experiences with helps to buffer the impact of the day-to-day adversities we encounter.  Having strong social networks and others that matter to us helps tremendously when we face moments of uncertainty and challenge. Knowing that someone has our back gives us the strength to attempt difficult tasks.   These relationships are critical but take time and effort to cultivate and nourish.   Investing the time to work on communication and engagement skills to strengthen these relationships can reap huge dividends.

Spiritual fitness, or having a strong sense of life purpose, helps us to carry on during difficult times, find meaning in our experiences, and persevere when the challenges are tough.  People with strong spirit are better able to accept the temporary setbacks that come with trauma and adversity.  Not only do they have a strong sense of their own purpose and place in the world, they acknowledge and respect the influence of others in the development of their spirit and value the purpose of others.  They are better able to analyze situations and find meaning in the challenges they face (Pargament & Sweeney, 2011).

Physical fitness keeps our body and mind sharp.  Being physically fit requires aerobic exercise, strength and endurance training,  as well as eating well and getting quality sleep.  Getting away from your desk, challenging your heart, and taking in some fresh air can help you face challenges and gain new perspectives on what seems like the same old issue.  Being in good physical condition gives us the stamina to work through daily challenges, the reserves we need when called upon to go the extra mile and face adversity. 

While physical fitness helps us insure our bodies are strong and flexible, emotional fitness does the same for our minds.  Key components of emotional fitness are resilience, self-awareness, optimism, and positivity.  In the same way we keep our bodies fit through weight training and stretching, leaders can engage in mental exercise and training to strengthen and add flexibility to their thought processes in order to be more in control of their emotions.  Being aware of, and able to, regulate your emotions allows you to think more clearly and face adversities.  The ways we think about significant (or sometimes insignificant) life events often cause us to respond inappropriately with emotions and actions that wear away at our resilience.  Developing accurate, optimistic, and positive thinking processes can help us see adversities as challenges to be met, and learned from, rather than as obstacles or derailments.  

So I ask you, how fit are you and the members of your organization?  Are they optimistic and emotionally resilient?  Do they rebound from setbacks and use those experiences to spring forward?  As their leader, how dedicated are you to fostering and facilitating growth in these areas?  Do you encourage participation in family and social activities?  Do you provide white space where your people can take the time to reflect on what is important to them and how they can best achieve their personal and professional goals? Do you offer a gym membership? Do you actively train in these areas?

There is good evidence that leaders and workers who are holistically fit are happier, more productive and just plain more pleasant to be around.  Each of these dimensions of fitness can be cultivated and strengthened but each also require practice and attention.  Leading the way and demonstrating that these are important to you might well be the best gift that you can give your organization this holiday season.  


Army, U. S. (2013, December 02). Five Dimensions. Retrieved from Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness:

Casey, G. W. (2011). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: A Vision for Psychological resilience in the U. S. Army. American Psychologist Special Issue: Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, 1-3.

Kushner, H. S. (2001). Living a Life That matters. New York: Anchor Books.

Pargament, K. I., & Sweeney, P. J. (2011). Building Spiritual Fitness in the Army. American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No.1 58-64.

Colonel Donna Brazil, Ph.D., PC

Expertise:Leader development, resilience,leadership, and executive coach  ExperienceDr. Brazil retired from the United States Army as a Colonel with over 31 years of leadership experience. She served in wide variety of leadership assignments to include executive officer and operations officer for a 1000-person logistics unit, commander of a transportation company, and... Read More +

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Edited By Colonel (Retired) James M. Johnson, Ph.D.