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Teddy Roosevelt's Jiu-Jitsu Skills and 5 Other Traits that Made US Presidents Better Leaders

02/13/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Ask business leaders what keeps them up at night, and often, they'll say they wonder what their legacy will be. U.S. presidents are no different. They all want to know how their actions will be remembered.

But really, it's who they are that ultimately drives what they do. The presidents with the most legendary accomplishments all had a strong foundation, what I call the "roots" of grounded leadership - physical, emotional, intellectual, social, vocational and spiritual health. Here are six examples of U.S. presidents who can inspire us all to become healthier, more grounded, and as a result, more accomplished leaders. (And perhaps also inspire us to take up Jiu-Jitsu.)

These 6 Presidents Would Have Made Great CEOs



Physical Health: Teddy Roosevelt



Today's leaders grapple with long work hours, excessive stress, diminished job security and dwindling work-life balance - making it more important than ever to stay physically fit and monitor their health. Despite being one of the more obvious routes to overall well-being, physical health is often pushed aside and deprioritized.

One president who appreciated the need for physical activity was none other than Teddy Roosevelt. He wrestled, boxed, fenced, rock-climbed, rode horseback, hiked, played tennis and was even trained in Jiu-Jitsu by a Japanese master during his presidency. Roosevelt's physical health helped keep him sharp as he reformed the workplace and regulated business, but it likely also played a role in his conservationist endeavors. He established federal protection for 230 million acres of land, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks and 18 national monuments. His numerous outdoor activities were undoubtedly tied to his appreciation of nature - resulting in one of the key contributions of his presidency.

Emotional Health: Barack Obama

Scrutiny and criticism typically come with the territory for U.S. Presidents, and for any leader. But emotional health allows leaders to focus on the positive, to triumph over fear and to build resilience.

Take President Barack Obama, who faced both praise and significant disapproval for his dogged support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Regardless of your own sentiments about the ACA, it's indisputable that our president resiliently stuck to his convictions and the underlying belief that the ACA would revolutionize health care in America. When conservatives mockingly nicknamed the ACA "Obamacare," instead of shrinking back from his stance, Obama chose to embrace the name and has used it himself ever since. Former White House Adviser David Axelrod even commented on the president's thick skin recently on The Daily Show with John Stewart. He recalled that despite his advice to avoid taking further political risks with the ACA, the president remained unflappable, saying, "If we don't do it now, it'll never get done." Through his unfaltering belief in the bill itself, as well as his compromise with Congress to amend it, President Obama has overcome negativity and criticism to move the needle forward in health care reform.

Vocational Health: Abraham Lincoln

Vocational health is a meaningful calling and an insatiable desire to succeed. Too often, leaders go through the motions and lose a sense of purpose. By embracing challenging issues and feeling a connection to their work, leaders can propel themselves to their highest potential.

Abraham Lincoln is known as one of our most resilient and ambitious leaders, who made it to the presidency despite a string of professional failures in his early life. Lincoln then took the presidency during one of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history; however, he embraced the challenge of making the people understand how important it was to preserve the only genuine democratic government in the world. To this day, he is widely regarded for his mastery of public speech. Of course, perhaps the most significant proof Lincoln's vocational health was his dedication to the banishment of slavery. Though he was not beloved during his time in office, Lincoln's ideals and perseverance made him one of the most admired presidents of all time.

Intellectual Health: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Leaders inevitably face complex problems that require adaptive and creative thinking. By exercising intellectual health, they learn to think paradoxically and to stay on their toes.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously spoke the paradoxical phrase, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," is a perfect example of a clever and adaptive leader. Tasked with revitalizing America during the Great Depression, FDR didn't have a silver bullet - he had to experiment with strategies that could fix the economy. As a result, he initiated the New Deal - a series of programs focused on relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat crisis. Despite criticism, FDR's adaptable thinking led to a system that restored hope to millions of desperate people.

Social Health: James Monroe

James Monroe's presidency is known as the "Era of Good Feeling." Monroe was likable, admired and showed interest in hearing what people actually wanted. During his presidency in the early 19th century, he toured the country to get to know his constituents firsthand, allowing more Americans to see him than any other president of that era. By building this trust, he was able to oversee the Missouri Compromise, which helped hold the Union together for more than 30 years.

As transparent and collaborative environments are increasingly in demand, leaders must take care to be accessible, to be their genuine, authentic selves and to build trust within their organizations. Without first accruing the loyalty of employees and colleagues, leaders will have nothing to draw from when the time comes to guide them through a crisis or a compromise.

Spiritual Health: John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was, of course, the first Catholic president, but spiritual health goes far beyond religious beliefs alone. It's about tapping into a higher purpose and experiencing the fullness of life in a world much bigger than ourselves. JFK led an age of pioneering, looking to the stars and promising the U.S. would reach the moon by the end of the decade.

JFK also saw great potential here on Earth, and created the Peace Corps in March 1961--his first great achievement as president. The volunteer program aimed to encourage the spirit of service and world peace, and gave young Americans an invaluable global perspective. Since its inception, over 210,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries working on issues ranging from AIDS education to economic development.

Spiritual health may be the most overlooked or ignored of these roots of grounded leadership, but it is far from the least important. In our research at Healthy Companies, spiritual health was, in fact, the greatest predictor of high job performance. Today's leaders, in business or in government, would do well to learn from Kennedy's example - remember the bigger picture, and don't forget to reach for the stars.

Bob Rosen is founder and CEO of Healthy Companies International and author of the New York Times Best-Selling book Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in and Uncertain World (Jossey-Bass, 2013). He is an internationally recognized psychologist and trusted global CEO advisor.