Leadership: It’s not about the handstand

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Last week someone who has been very supportive of my writing asked me if I’d written a post in April. I somewhat sheepishly replied that I hadn’t. I then admitted that I knew why I hadn’t posted, and that I anticipated it would be the topic of my next post. Sure enough, here we are. (To that individual, thank you for the gentle nudge.)

Part of my paying job includes publishing a newsletter for managers. Sometimes I include posts and articles about leadership that I’ve curated from around the interwebs, many which I find through a daily aggregator email I receive. I share these pieces because they have something worthwhile to say. Often they’re from others whose careers are focused on developing leaders, and I’m always curious to explore their sites to see what else they have to say and to learn about their backgrounds and experience.

That’s where the long slide of feelings of inadequacy begins. Here are individuals who have been in their field, like me, for a few decades, but who have an approach to leadership development that is providing them a revenue stream. They have websites with ads and sponsorships, books, speaking engagements… Some also write posts on other leadership sites with numerous other guest bloggers who also have awesome-looking careers. Most of them look to be my age or a bit older; some appear to be younger than me by a decade or me.

Every single time I read about one of these individuals, a little voice in the back of my head says something like “That should be, could be, you. And it’s not. Why not? What the hell is wrong with you? You’re capable of far, far more than you’re doing. You are so unaccomplished. You are so inadequate.” Every. Single. Time. The result is a lack of motivation to capture my thoughts on this blog–it feels so small. More self-talk: “What game do I think I’m playing at? I don’t know enough about leadership to be writing about it.”

It’s kind of like my experience with the elusive handstand.

I’ve been practicing yoga for about 8 years now. I have a strong physical practice, have developing a valuable ability to really listen to the messages my physical body is sending me about my emotional state, and always find the mat to be the greatest teacher. Along the way, I’ve learned some intermediate-to-advanced poses and conquered a lot of fear, finding the fun in some stupid-human-trick arm balances. And I enjoy a good headstand. In all of that time, however, I’ve only twice gotten into handstand, both times with quite a bit of assistance.

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To be clear, this is not me. This is some woman in a free photo from StockSnap.io.

For quite some time I felt very inadequate in my yoga practice because I couldn’t do a
handstand. My personal Yoda would ask me, “Why do
you want to do a handstand?” I never had a good answer for her, because in my heart I knew that the answer was “Because everyone else (?) is doing one and at this point I feel I SHOULD be able to do one and I feel like stupid and like a fraud yogi because I can’t.” That’s some nice self-talk, eh?

If I felt that way, then why didn’t I focus on developing a handstand practice? The reasons are numerous, mostly having to do with incredible fear, as well as a bum right shoulder. Over time, I started to approach my practice in a different way, including practicing at different studios where there was less emphasis on things like handstand. If we practice handstand, alternatives are always provided, and all variations are encouraged. It took a few years, but I began to give up my attachment to achievement of handstand as having any meaning other than I could do a handstand. In fact, I went the opposite direction, planting myself in the camp that I may never have a handstand practice and that’s ok, and I don’t really want to try.

Last year, something began to shift again, and I started to explore the possibility of a handstand. I think the shift was due to seeing the value in it for the sake of changing my perspective. The world looks different upside-down. My right shoulder also had healed. I started spending more time working up to forearm stand, an inversion I feel much more comfortable with, building the strength required for it and handstand. I was having fun with it (especially when my husband would assist me and I would kick him in the face), and making progress, trying not to be attached to the outcome.

Then my left shoulder started giving me problems. (The cause is due to a repetitive motion injury that has nothing to do with yoga but is not helped by chatturanga.) About 4 months ago I was practicing at home, working on forearm stand, and I had no strength in my shoulder, just pain. I knelt on my mat and cried, not from the pain, but because I was frustrated and attached to an outcome I couldn’t achieve. I felt like a failure. I felt inadequate.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve come to reflect on why I was procrastinating writing another post, I realized that I was avoiding doing so because of the feelings of inadequacy I’ve been experience every time I explore one of those leadership blogs. I’ve been making my leadership about a professional handstand. In reading all those posts by those other individuals, I was attaching myself to an outcome of how I felt it SHOULD be: that I should be able to have a website and write books and give speeches and make money from it, and the fact that I don’t must indicate a failure in me. Each time I engaged in that self-talk, I chose to ignore the value I bring as a leader and an expert to the people I work with every day.

Tonight I pulled out my favorite book from yoga teacher training, Living Your Yoga by Judith Hanson Lasater (1), and turned to the chapter on attachment and aversion. As Lasater explains, attachment, or raga in Sanskrit, is “reacting to the way you think something should be, and not the way things actually are.” She proposes that when we find ourselves struggling with attachment (raga) or aversion (dvesha, avoidance of what we don’t want), we ask ourselves “How should it be?” and to remember that “things are the way they are, and I have a choice about whether I want to react to how they are.”

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This also is not me. But it’s a closer approximation of the relationship I have with my practice.

As I reflect on that, I have to ask myself where my attachment to that professional outcome is coming from. I’ve always been goal-oriented and a relatively high achiever, yet I feel like I haven’t done enough, that I’m capable of more, and that I’m selling myself short. It’s not much different than the handstand.

The truth is, I probably AM capable of more. However, I have chosen a different path. Things are how they are because I have chosen for them to be that way. If I really put my mind to it, I could quite likely do all of those things that all of those leadership experts are doing. I know my field. I have a point-of-view. I could leverage my experience to build a personal brand and business, write a book, speak at events. But I know it would take an incredible amount of time. My life as I know it–a life that is balanced and full–would change dramatically. I couldn’t do that and continue to work full-time, volunteer in a field I’m passionate about, spend meaningful time with my family and friends, maintain my physical health, and allow myself critical down-time to recharge. Something would have to give, and I’m not willing to let any of those things give. Not right now. And I would have to get over my fear that no one would want to hear what I have to say. Meanwhile, I do have confidence that I’m a strong and respected leader, and I bring value to my employer and those I work and associate with. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

It’s the same thing with the handstand, assuming my shoulder improves. (I’ve pushed through injury in yoga, and it’s just not worth it.) To develop a handstand practice will take dedication, time, a lot more core work (which I despise), practice, willingness to ask for a lot of help, and overcoming my fear. Someday, if I work at it, I’ll likely get to experience the joy of handstand. What I will always have is a strong practice that brings me clarity and grounding, which is truly why we come to the mat.

Right now isn’t the right time for handstand for me. It’s not the right time for me to invest in building a personal brand around my professional expertise. But that doesn’t mean it will never be the time. I am fully capable of handstand. I am fully capable of doing more with my profession. The key is that when I’m ready to try, it has to be about the journey–I can’t be attached to the destination. I have a choice about whether I’ll be controlled by how I feel things should be, or if I’ll accept how they are right now, while opening myself to the wonder of the possible in the future. I’m going to chose the latter.

(1) Lasater, Judith. Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: Rodmell, 2015. Print.

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