The best leadership development advice I have ever received came from an incredibly flexible, lycra-clad yoga instructor whilst clenching my teeth as I sought to hold the exotically named Sages Pose. “Relax into the stretch” she said. “Just breathe.”
Even though my muscles were screaming out at me about the discomfort, I followed her advice. I focused on my breath, not the pain. I accepted the feeling of discomfort rather than fighting it and reminded myself that the signals my nerves were sending me were a good sign; that my body was opening up and stretching. I relaxed my muscles and let gravity do its work.
I reminded myself that I was exactly where I needed to be – not at the end of the session, not at work, nowhere else but right there, in that pose, in that place, at that time.
The parallels between stretching in a yoga studio and in your leadership are helpful to examine. Even today we make it part of our leadership development curriculum by taking our developing leaders into the yoga studio to learn this important technique of relaxing into the stretch.
It is also exactly the advice I now give leaders that I work with who are seeking to develop their capability.
First, accept that the feeling of being stretched and the discomfort is exactly what you need to feel. Whilst feeling competent and in control is helpful and desirable most of the time it also means that you can fight those moments when you are learning and being stretched. As a result, you either give up too early or fail to stretch fully and achieve new positions of thought and action.
Second, focus on your breath. Your breathing anchors you to the present. Focusing on it turns off your narrative circuitry and allows you to let go of worrisome thoughts. This is helpful for those who think too much about where they feel they should be (not in the stretch) or where they have been (not in the stretch). Remember that all stress originates from a feeling that you should be somewhere else.
Then relax into the stretch. Instead of tensing and therefore closing up your mind, relax and lean into the stretch. It is counter-intuitive to do but it is exactly what you need to do. Your intuition or non-conscious thinking system is screaming at you to stop. You, therefore, need to use your conscious mind to control those impulses. The analogy I like to use is that of a driver who loses control of a vehicle on an icy or slippery road. A well-trained driver knows to turn into the slide and not step on the brakes, even though your intuition is yelling at you to stomp on the brakes with all your might. Likewise, when in the stretch, fight your instinct and instead relax.
Next time you find yourself tensing up in the learning moment, let go. You’ll be amazed how much further you can reach as a result, and how much more comfortable you feel whilst in the stretch.
Gerard Penna is a leadership advisor and coach to CEOs, boards, billionaires and leaders from the frontline to executive teams, working in diverse settings from desert mining camps to hi-tech start-ups, and sky-scraping boardrooms with some of our most recognisable companies. He is the creator of the powerful X Model of Leadership, author of the groundbreaking book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, host of the The Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast and founder of Xtraordinary Leaders, a training company deeply committed to lifting the bar on leadership and leadership development.