I remember the first time I stepped onto a yoga mat – it was like a portal to a place where people, mostly women with slender nymph-like figures, were able to twist themselves into shapes of pretzels, and where they spoke a language I could not understand.
Being one of the few males in class was definitely awkward and foreign to me. It made me feel like a fish out of water. Being a beginner and starting from scratch was a huge challenge.
Nonetheless, with a year of consistent practice, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come and how much more I can stretch myself.
My practice mat has grown beyond the classroom into everyday life, and I’m beginning to see how the essence of yoga can guide one’s personal and leadership journey.
Here are five lessons on leadership that I’ve learned from the mat and beyond.
1. Leadership is one mindful decision after another
In these days of digital technology where everything moves at breakneck speed, leaders are faced with the challenge of keeping up with changes, whether it’s within the organisation or on a macro level in the market.
Our day-to-day lives are dictated by packed schedules with meetings to catch and people to meet, leaving a tendency for us to become used to the mindlessness of the daily grind. This then leads to increased stress that affects the quality of our work and relationships.
In yoga, we are encouraged to be mindful and intentional about our words and actions – acknowledging each moment that we’re in. Whether it’s a business meeting with a client or giving feedback to an employee, our conscious effort to be present and to really listen may just be the greatest gift we can offer as leaders.
Mark Bertolini, chief executive officer of Aetna introduced yoga and meditation in his organisation as a measure to boost employee well-being. As the old adage goes, a happy worker is a productive worker.
2. Everything is about practise, even leadership
When I first started yoga, bending over and touching my toes seemed like an impossible goal. Leadership is both a science and an art; hence, like any learnable skill, it can be sharpened through consistent practise and perseverance.
Malcolm Gladwell famously said that elite performers and those who rise to the top of their game have spent roughly 10,000 hours at their craft. Of course, the blood, sweat and tears come packaged as part of the process towards excellence.
When J. K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book, it was rejected by 12 different publishers. The small publishing house Bloomsbury, who purchased her manuscript, even told Rowling to “get a day job”. Had she taken their advice and threw in the towel, we may have missed out on some magic.
Many individuals had to persevere through the pain of learning, unlearning and relearning before emerging as great leaders in their field.
3. Discover and curate your own leadership style
Hatha yoga. Ashtanga yoga. Vinyasa yoga. Just as there are many styles of yoga, there are just as many styles of leadership.
There is no model of leadership that can fit perfectly and be applied across all organisations, communities and cultures. The best leaders are aware of their own style of leadership and are able to adapt this style situationally to put it into effective practice.
In a world saturated with media spotlights on high profile leaders, it is common for us to fall into the trap of thinking that great leaders are razor-sharp, extroverted and outspoken figures like Steve Jobs.
What worked for Jobs may not necessarily work for us.
When leaders are well-acquainted and comfortable with their own style, they unintentionally extend the same feeling of ease to their followers, and this enables everyone to perform at their natural best.
4. Practise makes purpose, not perfect
Leaders are not built in a day and excellence is not achieved with an hour’s work. The road to success is often paved with challenges and difficulties that will tempt us to give up, raise the white flag and retreat to our comfort zone where it’s nice and safe.
As evolved as we are as human beings, our behaviors are still strongly governed by our lizard brain – the primitive part of the brain influenced by emotions and our call to arms in a fight-or-flight response.
Fear, shame and uncertainty shake us off our trajectory sometimes, thus for any leader to show grit and keep to his or her goals is no easy feat.
In yoga practice, the goal is not to realise perfection but to find a purpose. When our tight muscles are reeling from the pain of stretches and screaming for us to let go, a clarity of the ultimate goal is what keeps us from giving up the practice.
How about leadership? What is the higher purpose that drives our motivation to keep going come rain or shine?
When it comes down to it, a leader with a clear raison d’être will likely be the one who sees things through to the end.
5. Authenticity wins
The practice of yoga encourages us to show up and reveal our true selves in order to form a genuine connection with everything around us.
Yoga is a work-in rather than a workout, and it leads us to explore our strengths and vulnerabilities. After spending decades researching human emotions such as courage, shame, worthiness and vulnerability, Professor Brené Brown at the University of Houston sums it up by arguing that leadership has nothing to do with position, salary or number of direct reports.
By now, we’ve seen it all. We are sick and tired of empty promises and fancy talk. Professor Brown believes that “across the private and public sector, in schools and in our communities, we are hungry for authentic leadership – we want to show up, we want to learn and we want to inspire and be inspired…”
Having power does not automatically make one a leader, but our highest power and most influential selves can only be achieved when we align who we are with what we do.
Maya Angelou said:
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”