New Leadership Lessons from Yoga June 30 2011

Yoga-headstand So, let me first assure you that the picture that comes with this post has not been Photoshopped.  That is me in my business clothes standing on my head alongside Melissa, one of my good buddies from yoga. The back story is that yesterday I went straight from a meeting with clients to the Down Dog Yoga studio to sneak in the lunch time class. The folks there are more used to seeing me in shorts and sandals than a jacket and slacks. As soon as I walked in, Alison, the instructor, said "We've got to take pictures of you doing poses in your suit. It will be the business power hour!" I have a hard time saying no to Alison and the next thing I knew, there we were going upside down.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you might remember a post I wrote about six months ago called Leadership Lessons from Yoga.  When I wrote it, I had been going to yoga for a couple of months and was about as flexible as your average 2×4. The fact that I was doing a headstand in my work clothes for a joke photo yesterday kind of blows me away when I think about it.  The first time I ever did a headstand in my life was in a yoga workshop a couple of weeks before I turned 50 years old. Now, a couple of months later, I'm cranking them out on request. 

Never imagined that I'd be doing that which brings me to a few new leadership lessons from yoga:

The Depth of Instruction and Coaching Matters a Lot:  As it turns out, doing a headstand is not that hard if you know how to do it.  I learned how to do it in a three hour workshop from Beth, one of the instructors at Down Dog. That leads to another point. You may have to go off line and go deep to learn completely new skills. An instructor can't provide the attention to teach someone a headstand in a class with 50 or 60 people. In a three hour workshop with 10 people, there's plenty of time. There's a lot to be said for learning by doing, but you actually have to know what to do first. Good leaders create the time and space for learning.

Repetition Leads to Competence:  Once I learned how to do a headstand, I had to keep practicing to become any good at it.  I practiced at home against a wall so I wouldn't fall out of it.  I picked spots in the studio close to a wall so I could practice in class. Eventually, I could sort of, kind of get my feet up in the air on my own without a wall.  At that point, I started practicing in the front row of class so if I fell out of the pose I wouldn’t land on someone in front of me. Good thing I did because I regularly had wipe outs that would make a NASCAR driver proud. Progress came in fits and starts. I'd have a few good days and a few not so good days with the headstands.  After class one day, I asked Beth to watch my technique and she saw in 10 seconds a simple adjustment I needed to make to hold the pose.  It's been pretty good ever since.  Like Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers and Geoff Colvin writes in Talent Is Overrated , it's all about the reps and the practice. That's the only way you get any good at anything.

You Can Do More Than You Think You Can:  When I first started going to yoga, I’d see people doing headstands and other party tricks and thought, “I will never be able to do that.”  Well, I was wrong.  What yoga has taught me is that while my body creates some limitations, most of them are in my head.  If you don't try, you don't find out what's possible. 

You're More Likely to Try When It's Safe to Fail:  One of Alison’s favorite things to say when she teaches a class is, “Don’t look so serious, it’s just a freaking yoga pose.”  In other words, it’s OK if you fall out of the pose or don’t do it perfectly.  If you make it safe to fail, failure ceases to be a big deal.  It becomes a learning experience, not a consequence.  That’s a really useful thing to keep in mind when you’re learning to do headstands (literally or figuratively).

OK, all of you yogis, what have you been learning on and off the mat lately? Yogi or not, what have you been learning lately about leadership and stretching yourself? (Pun sort of intended.)

10 Responses to “New Leadership Lessons from Yoga”

  1. That's profound. I didn't learn how to ride a bike until I was practically in the third grade. The older I became, the less confidence I had that I would ever develop the skill to ride. There were 4-year olds on my street with better balancing abilities than me. My parents tried to help me learn repeatedly. I didn't want to fail them, but I could tell they were disappointed and embarrassed for me. My wheels were gathering dust in the garage and I had pretty much given up. Then one Summer day my sister – bike at her side – asked me to join her and her friends to play a game. "You KNOW I don't know how to ride a bike," I said. She just calmly replied, "You don't need to know how to ride for the game we're playing – we're only WALKING our bikes." I went to the garage, grabbed my bike, and got on. The moment my foot hit the pedals I magically started riding it up and down the street effortlessly. It was like I'd been doing it all my life. It was the first time someone said it was okay if I didn't know how. That was such a magical feeling. I rode my bike up and down the street well into sunset. It wasn't until years later I realized the power my sisters words had to lift the long-held limitations in my head. So yes – You're more likely to try if it's safe to fail!

  2. Tom Schuler says:

    Side crow was my equivalent to your headstand. There was just no way, but the teacher kept encouraging me (a person that could in no way do side crow) that I could. Now I can. I guess I'd just build off of your repetition comment, but with a slightly different twist. I've been working with a company on their strategic plan. Stressing the importance of making strategy a daily conversation that provides context as opposed to something that happens once a year. At the end of three months, they now begin each meeting with strategy to provide context and they're getting more resources than they ever wished for because people see how they fit in to the bigger picture. Just like me and side crow, they finally bought in and achieved their own unachievable goal.

  3. Scott Eblin says:

    To my friend from Postcards –

    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful and heartwarming story. I shared it with my wife and she said she suspects your sister grew up to be a coach. I suspect she's right.

    Ride on!

    Cheers –

    Scott

  4. Scott Eblin says:

    Tom –

    Dude, you're rocking the side crow!?! Awesome. That is on my longer term list of yoga poses to learn.

    Love the application of the reps and persistence point to what your client is doing.

    Thanks and congrats!

    Cheers –

    Scott

  5. Great insights! Thank you for sharing! I really loved your point about the importance of the right kind of coaching and instruction. Good coaches invariably turn out to be good leaders because they have the ability to inspire and influence.

    And thank you also for highlighting the fact that one can learn from almost any situation, in any setting when you keep your eyes, ears and mind open.

    - Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)

  6. Rob Volpe says:

    Side crow continues to challenge me as well. Wonder what the significance of that pose is.

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. I am in complete agreement with your thoughts. I began doing regular headstands to cure a nasty case of sciatica years ago (it works!) and ever since then have made them a part of my daily routine, whether I do yoga or not. In fact this morning, I took a run on the beach and did a headstand at the waters edge. Watching the waves upside down brings a whole new perspective to something I take for granted…isn't that the point? I prefer 10 minutes. It's the equivalent of a good nights sleep or at least a 30 min meditation. And yes, it's great for business too as a wonderful tool to bring focus to your thoughts. Everyone should try it!

  8. Scott Eblin says:

    Thanks Heather. I've done headstands on the beach before too and agree with you on the point about looking at the water from an upside down perspective. Wonderfully disorienting. The other benefit of headstands on the beach is the sand is a lot softer than the floor if you fall out of the pose.

    Cheers –

    Scott

  9. tobyp says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! I had a similar experience with handstands — never thought I could do them and with simple coaching and a lot of practice, I'm able to go up just like that (though I still use the wall as a crutch!). One thing I've learned from being upside down that I apply off the mat is that ordinary things I see regularly and take for granted look very different from another perspective. When I'm working through a situation at work, I remind myself to look at it from a different spot — to view it upside down and look for things that may be easy to miss but right in front of me. Another thing: Practice Makes Progress on and off the mat. It's easier to be self forgiving and take risks when I expect progress instead of perfection. Yoga can be a powerful metaphor all the way around.

  10. Christopher says:

    Thanks a lot for this valuable story, Scott! Beautiful to see the parallells between yoga and leadership. I've been exploring similar work recently as part of my thesis research, which is now summarised in a practice guide ('The Lotus', which you can download from http://www.thelotus.info). In the guide, we mention yoga as a good practice to help your leadership capacity to deal with paradoxes and dualities, since you are literally forced to stretch your body. Yoga in itself is paradoxical, since you have to develop a kind of inner strength in order to rest in stillness. I believe that also applies to many leadership tasks in complex environments. Any other thoughts?

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