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Leadership: Yoga can improve resilience and impact

A better you means a better team and better care and services

Not many people would know that I faced my greatest challenge as a leader back in 2013 when as the CEO of a group of 10 Aged Care homes, an employee of one of the homes committed a serious crime. The employee was charged in 2014 and ultimately received a significant sentence for the matters at hand.

That is not the focus of this story, but in fact, the challenge I faced as a leader. I was responsible for not only handling the serious event and police investigation, but also being the person who was the interface with key stakeholders, including communication with staff, managers, consumers, and their families. We often do not think about what is going on behind the scenes when a crisis occurs, and we often do not recognise the toll that these events have on our stress levels, health and leadership.

The long story short is that, as the leader, I successfully navigated all that this serious situation presented, including working to uphold the reputation of the company. I was very self-aware during the whole process of my own behaviour. I was conscious of how I was being perceived by my team and my leadership impact, the board and worked hard to be the best of all behaviours in a profoundly stressful and challenging situation.

Leadership behaviours are critical indicators of the success or failure of an organisation.

On reflection, my behaviour was critical in enabling the organisation to successfully navigate such an extreme circumstance. To succeed in today’s world, leaders must develop their skills, capacities, and knowledge. The field of leadership is continuing to grow and expand into new areas. The aged care reform agenda is set to be one that will rely very heavily on leadership capability. To bring to life all the benefits the reform program entails will ultimately have the biggest impact on the lived experience of older Australians.

‘Rome was not built in a day’, and when there is significant change, the ultimate responsibility of setting the right behaviours rests squarely on leaders.

In 2014, my doctor advised me that I had developed gallstones and needed to have my gallbladder removed. I reflected on the preceding 12 months and realised that whilst I had held everything together for my job and my family, I had lost focus on my health. I started to reflect on my stress management techniques and became interested in the role of cortisol and the linkages to stress and my current medical situation. A familiar situation for many who have and continue to work very hard on attending to the reform agenda and providing exceptional care and services.

I recognised, in that moment, that I needed to heal my body after the onslaught of a sustained and difficult situation. I can’t quite recall how or why it occurred, but I decided to enrol in a 200-hour Level 1 Yoga course. I have never previously practiced yoga and came to it like many other ill-informed novice practitioners thinking it was all about bending my body into shapes and getting stronger. It could not be further from the truth. I was exposed to the initial teachings of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs model of Yoga (Hatha Yoga) and realised asana (one limb) was about the physical element but the remaining seven were about a whole lot of different focus.

My journey advanced to Level 2 and ultimately, I completed a Certificate IV in Yoga Practice (Purna Yoga). Today I remain a committed practitioner and use the philosophies so inherent to my work as a coach, mentor and leader of Anchor Excellence

The word ‘yoga’ means to connect, unite or ‘yoke’. The thing we look to connect to is the true self, also known as the ‘divine essence’, ‘ultimate self’, or atman. You might also think of this as the soul.

If that way of thinking does not resonate with you, then consider that the word yoga can also mean separation or disentanglement. The thing we are disentangling from is whatever stops us from feeling free, as the goal of any yoga practice is to attain moksha, meaning liberation or freedom. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is an eight-fold path leading to liberation, known as the ‘Ashtanga Yoga System’ or ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’ (the word ‘ashta’ means ‘eight’ and ‘anga’ means ‘limb’).

What is Yoga?

Yoga is the integration of physical practice, meditation, and breathing exercises. Yoga cultivates self-awareness, ethical behaviours, and spirituality while improving inner peace, concentration, and wellbeing. As a society, we are always looking for methods to increase leadership levels and improve leadership skills. Within this search is a need for new training methods and ideas that can benefit leaders, organizations, employees, and society. A quantitative study examined the effects of frequency of yoga practice on individual leader’s self-reported authentic leadership levels. The findings showed that leaders who practice yoga consistently (four or more times per week) have significantly higher self-reported authentic leadership levels. From one of the most ancient of practices, yoga, this study may have located a whole new area of leadership development that is completely untapped and just waiting for further exploration for the betterment of organizations, leaders, and employees.

Yoga means to connect, unite or ‘yoke’.

I found that mindful engagement with others is what sets great leaders apart from good ones. Yoga can help you develop great leadership skills in many ways. These are a few that come to mind.

  1. problem-solving as a leader
  2. developing self-awareness, perspective and agility
  3. compassionately engaging with others, and
  4. checking your ego.

Problem-Solving as a Leader Great leaders need to be great problem-solvers. They need to be able to come up with creative, effective solutions to challenging dilemmas, and then lead a team through carrying out the solution. Creative problem-solving often makes us think beyond what we already know (or think we know) — in other words, it requires us to learn something new. Yoga, which asks us to pay attention to our bodies and to align our breathing with our movements, can actually help us learn.

Self-awareness, perspective and agility Doing yoga resets your reference points. Moving your body literally changes your perspective, which is often all you need to learn a new concept or shift how you’re approaching a problem. Yoga also gets more oxygen to your brain. Coordinating your breath with your movement brings your attention to your breath; this helps calm down a hyperactive nervous system and engages the higher processing parts of your brain. In turn, you put yourself in a better position to think critically and creatively and be present for those around you.

Compassionately engaging with others and being present We all know that being a leader means getting things done. Just as importantly, though, being a leader means knowing how to communicate with, delegate to, and motivate, others. All of these things are most successfully accomplished if done from a place of compassion and understanding; this is another area where the benefits of yoga come in. Many of the times when we communicate less successfully as a leader, we are failing to engage with others from a place of compassion. Instead, we are often worried about what we need to get done, which co-workers or team members are causing us issues, what problems might arise in the future. Doing yoga brings you back to the present. The future can be a scary place, especially if you are in a leadership position where the stakes are high. Yoga reminds us to concentrate our energy and attention on what we can and need to do at this moment. When we focus our attention on the present and allow ourselves to be fully present with others, we can best engage with co-workers or team members in a way that will motivate and inspire them rather than stress them out.

Checking your ego. Lastly, being a great leader requires you to recognize and admit when you’re not able to solve a problem or complete a project on your own. It means checking your ego and asking for help when you need it, for the ultimate good of the project or the whole organization. Doing yoga presents physical and mental challenges that require us to check our ego every time we practice. Poses that look simple turn out to be incredibly difficult, and it can take months – even years – of practice to master just one new skill. Yoga reminds us to recognize the limits of our body, even as it asks us to appreciate and care for our body.

The aged care sector is under enormous pressure. Its leaders need to be present and compassionately engaging more than ever. The benefits outweigh the efforts of being open minded and open hearted. Yoga is an alternative approach to bringing a grounded and spiritual benefit to being a better leader. Leadership is all about people and organisation undeniably deliver improved outcomes to consumers when they are present, engaged and focussed.

To the aged care leaders, we extend our deep thanks for all that you do in supporting your teams

Cynthia is Founder and managing director of Anchor Excellence- a national board, executive and management consulting firm working to bring about an aged acre systems we can all be round of and one that is framed by the lived experience of older Australians.