Entrepreneur Chris Tsakalakis: ‘To Perform Mentally, You Have To Be Sound Physically’

An interview with the internet entrepreneur and former StubHub president.

While a recent study by Harvard Medical School said that that over 95% of leaders felt burnt out, a growing number of leaders are thriving in their careers due to their passion for fitness and healthy living. In “The Stronger Leader Series,” Author Pete Leibman, interviews C-level executives, game-changing entrepreneurs, and other high-performers who attribute part of their career success to their active, healthy lifestyles.

This article features highlights from Pete’s interview with Chris Tsakalakis, internet entrepreneur and former President of StubHub, the world’s largest online ticket marketplace.

Note: To nominate yourself or someone else to be featured in a future installment of this series, send an email to Support@PeteLeibman.com and use “Stronger Leader Nomination” as your subject line.

Pete Leibman (PL): “Chris, you had open heart surgery in 2009. What were the circumstances that led to your procedure?”

Chris Tsakalakis (CT): “In 2004, I dislocated my shoulder while playing with my 18 month old son. In the run-up to my shoulder surgery, my GP listened to my heart and heard a murmur, which was later diagnosed as mitral valve prolapse or, more simply, a leak. The doctor didn’t give me a clear answer on what to do about it, so I basically ignored it for three years. In 2007, the heart murmur came up when I was getting disability insurance. I had to visit a cardiologist who told me my leak was not a big deal but I should get it checked every year. The next year, the leak had gotten worse, and he said that I might need surgery at some point. The year after that, the leak had gone from moderate to severe, and the cardiologist told me I would have to get it fixed some time in the next two years. My initial thought when I heard that news was that I didn’t want my boys to grow up without a dad. I ended up having the surgery four months later in July 2009. Two of my uncles had the same surgery after me. It’s clearly a genetic issue.”

PL: “What was the recovery process like after your surgery?”

CT: “I was in the hospital for 10 days after my heart surgery. When I got home, I could walk around the block, about a half mile. After each half mile walk, I would lay down on the couch and recover. In the hospital, I lost 12 pounds and a lot of muscle. After being home for two months, I went back to work part-time and started cardiac rehab at a local hospital. I would park at the hospital and walk 2.5 miles to the office, where I’d shower and get to work. Then, I’d walk 2.5 miles back to the hospital after work. Five months after the surgery, I could run, only just downhill, not uphill or flat.”

PL: “You ran the Chicago Marathon the year after your surgery. How did that idea come about, and how did you train for it?”

CT: “When I was in the hospital after surgery, I decided that I would run the Chicago Marathon with my wife the next year. I’m from Chicago, it’s a flat course, and one of my best friends had died in 2009 of leukemia. I thought it was natural to raise money for leukemia research because I survived and my friend didn’t. I did the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program with my wife, and we ran the marathon in October 2010. It took us over five and half hours to finish because by mile 16, I couldn’t run anymore. I had to walk at the end, but we finished.”

Chris and his wife, at the finish line of the 2010 Chicago Marathon

PL: “How has your exercise program evolved since then, and what does your current workout routine look like?”

CT: “Before my surgery I was running a few miles a week and using the elliptical, along with doing some sit-ups and push-ups. It wasn’t anything overly rigorous. When we started training for the marathon, I was just running and stretching. No upper body work. I started having some knee problems due to the running, and I actually tore the labrum in my hip. My chiropractor said I really needed to build my upper body strength. She also recommended a trainer who does Crossfit. I started seeing the trainer at the end of 2010 and still work with her today, usually twice a week. Because I could injure myself relatively easily, I do a lower weight and lower intensity. I also swim twice a week, about a mile each time. On off days, I also do some push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, some core work, and some hip strengthening exercises. And I stretch every day.”

PL: “Do you currently follow a specific diet or any key nutritional philosophies?”

CT: “The chiropractor and personal trainer got me into the Paleo diet. I have pretty much been on it for the last four years.

PL: “There are different ways to follow the Paleo diet. What’s your approach, and how strict are you?”

CT: “I don’t eat pasta, bread, or wheat products, and I probably haven’t had a beer in five years. I do eat beans. I occasionally eat feta cheese, but little other dairy. I eat a lot of vegetables and a lot of meat, both lean and not lean. I also eat fish a few times a week. Every once in a while, I’ll cheat. Recently, my mom made cookies and baklava, so I enjoyed some of that.

PL: “Do your wife and sons follow the Paleo diet too?”

CT: “Not exactly. If it’s gluten free, they usually think it’s automatically bad. I tried getting them gluten-free bread, but I gave up. It’s all manufactured junk anyway. When we have a Paleo meal, I don’t announce that it’s a Paleo meal. They would probably drop their forks if I did.”

PL: “Why do you believe it’s important for leaders to make their health and fitness a priority, and what would you say to a leader who believes that he/she is too busy?”

CT: “In order to perform mentally, you have to be sound physically. Otherwise, you’ll run into all sorts of problems. Take sleep, for example. If I don’t have enough sleep, I can get really cranky. People are very sensitive to the emotional state of leaders. When you are healthy, you set a good example, and you show your people that it’s important to take care of yourself.”

PL: “What is your philosophy on sleep?”

CT: “I always get at least seven hours, and I aim for eight. I tend to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. Around 930pm, I usually start winding down. My wife and I try to go to bed at the same time. By 10pm, it’s usually dark in my house. If I’m up past that, it feels like I’m disturbing everyone.”

Chris and his wife, sporting their medals after finishing the 2010 Chicago Marathon

PL: “Thanks for sharing your inspiring story and some of your thoughts on healthy living. Let’s end with a few rapid-fire questions… What’s your favorite strength training exercise?”

CT: “Pull-ups. That’s an exercise that took me a lot of time to be able to do. I have to keep doing them, or I’ll lose the ability.”

PL: “Favorite song or musical artist to work out to?”

CT: “I’m more of an R&B guy. I also like songs about being a survivor, since I am one. Survivor by Destiny’s Child and Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) by Kelly Clarkson are two examples.”

PL: “Destiny’s Child and Kelly Clarkson, huh? You recognize that we will be putting this in print, right?”

CT: “It was well-known at StubHub that I was a Beyonce fan. Trust me, I got a lot of grief for it!”

PL: “Favorite healthy meal or snack?”

CT: “For snacks, it’s mixed raw nuts. I keep them with me all the time, especially when I travel. For meals, I love a good steak. Roasted broccoli and roasted cauliflower are big favorites in my house, too.”

PL: “Favorite athlete?”

CT: “I grew up in Chicago. My favorite athlete is Michael Jordan. Walter Payton would be #2. They brought greatness to their teams and to the city, and I admire that they always tried to get better.”

About the Author: Pete Leibman is an executive recruiter, author, and high-performance coach whose career advice has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. As a leading authority on high-performance, Pete’s currently writing his next book, titled Work Stronger: Habits for High-Performing People and Organizations. Click here for a free report from Pete on “The 5 Keys for Your Strongest, Healthiest Year Ever.”

Pete Leibman at work (left) and participating in a Tough Mudder obstacle race (right)