Val Wright on What Leaders Can Learn from CrossFit

Photo courtesy of Val Wright.

Val Wright has over 20 years of experience coaching senior executives on their leadership skills as a recognized leadership growth expert. Outside the corporate office, she holds her CrossFit Level 1 Trainer certificate, and has learned that CrossFit can provide for lessons that can be used inside and outside the Box.

Recently, Wright spoke with about the lessons CrossFit has taught her on leadership in today’s business world. Here, Wright expands on those thoughts, delving into more lessons leaders can learn from CrossFit.

BP: How were you introduced to CrossFit?

VW: It was actually six weeks after my first daughter was born. I was at my regular gym and I asked the owner for a personal trainer who was really going to put me through my paces. He introduced me to Nadia Shatila, and she incorporated a lot of the CrossFit ideas into my workouts. Then she went on to get trained and she got her Level 1 [ Trainer] certification, and eventually went on to open her own Box, CrossFit Belltown.

BP: How did CrossFit help you personally?

VW: It was incredible. It really transformed how I thought about fitness. Becoming a new mother for the first time, it gave me functional strength and the ability to cope with some of the sleep depravation. [Nadia] gave me a lot of advice on how to transform my nutrition as well. It just gave me a lot more strength and energy and it was a lot of fun. I always believe it’s important to have fun, whether you’re at work or outside of work.

BP: The article said that CrossFit workouts gave you new ideas about leadership. What are some examples? 

VW: You’re obviously familiar with the CrossFit Open that’s happening right now. That is an incredible competition because it’s a worldwide sport that’s open to everybody. Whether you’re doing burpees, pull ups or deadlifts, everybody knows the rules — they know how they’re evaluated, what it takes to win and what the rewards are. Having that clarity of “what is success?” really does make a difference.

One of the things you see if you go into any CrossFit box, is everyone wants everyone else to be successful, and everybody is trying to beat his or her score from last year or beat a personal record. If only some of that energy and focus could be translated into teams in the workplace — that would really help transform team performance. Because, if you can get alignment and the same level of aspirations and camaraderie that happens in CrossFit workouts, then you really can create a team that would be the envy of many leaders.

One of the [other] things is the community of CrossFit. I recently moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, and the first thing I said to my old gym owner was, “Can you recommend a new Box for me?” So they recommend me CrossFit 626 in Pasadena, and as soon as I walked into that Box, I immediately felt welcomed. I was speaking a common language and people were just incredibly welcoming.

I think of that and how it relates to when companies hire new employees and bring new people in. One of the biggest challenges is how you help make them feel like they belong. And I think there are a lot of lessons you can learn from the community of CrossFit, in terms of how you bring new employees into a new company, make them feel welcome and really help them feel connected and like they belong.

BP: Can you give me a specific example of how CrossFit helped you be a better boss personally?

VW: Part of what I do in my work is give people feedback, at things they’re good at, and things that they’re not so good at. So what I learned through CrossFit is that there are various ways that people are motivated, or incentivized or encouraged to improve their performance and get better. Even in CrossFit, you can tell some, you can encourage them, you can shout at them — you need to find that way that is unique for that individual.

When I’ve been in competitions, or when I was in a training seminar to get my Level I certification, I realized just how these different approaches are so true, particularly with CrossFit. It caused me to pay a lot more attention to that when I’m coaching leaders and working with teams, and making sure I’m varying my style and the way I give feedback so that it resonates and causes behavioral change in people. People want to figure out how they can grow and be successful.

BP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about in terms of CrossFit and how it relates to the workplace?

VW: This was true last week, when we were doing 14.1. I’d done my workout, so I was propped up against the wall all exhausted. And I was watching one of our coaches and, it was like the last 30 seconds of the workout, and as someone called 20 seconds, as someone called 10 seconds, he didn’t stop. And even in the last 10 seconds, he was able to get three snatches in. What impressed me was that even though he was exhausted, he still performed, and he still probably performed faster and harder than the previous nine and a half minutes.

I think about many of the leaders I work with. They’re overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted. For me, what differentiates elite performance, both at work and with CrossFit, is how do you perform when you’re exhausted? How do you tap into your reserves and really continue to perform? I think there’s an incredible lesson there and what you see from every CrossFit gym, whether people are competing or doing they’re regular workouts, is how they continue to give it their all, right until that final bell goes.

Rachel Zabonick
Rachel Zabonick is the editor-in-chief of Peake Media. Contact her at