New Leadership Lessons from Yoga

Posted 06.30.2011

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.)