Presence in Leadership
The Cuban National Ballet is performing in Chicago this weekend. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing them on their home stage in Havana earlier this year. They were absolutely amazing – their precision, expressions, and sheer skill took my breath away. The company’s director, prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, now in her 90’s, continues to lead them after founding the company in 1948. Her story is really quite amazing –
I was watching an interview with her on YouTube, and found this quote worth repeating. Alonso said, “I think it is a mistake to go out to dance and say, “Today I’ll try to do the character just as the other day, which turned out to be so good and which I liked so much.” This is a mistake. One should always go out to dance and think, “… How am I going to do this today? How do I feel?” Never try to imitate yourself. Never imitate any performance... It always should be a fresh character – a new character, the emotion of expressing something new, of thinking, of feeling that you are creating it in that very moment.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xV_KK1brK9E)
In yoga, we describe this as presence. Alonso goes on to give an example of how she would perform the same character, Giselle, in different ways because she knew herself, and knew expressing the character slightly differently each time would make it more authentic. It takes great awareness to know yourself that well that you can make those adjustments without sacrificing the overall choreography.
As a leader in the business world, we can’t always alter our character based on how we feel that day – in business we strive for consistency, standards, and processes. This brings greater efficiency in many cases, and can make it easier to evaluate performance and results. That is not to say, however, that we can’t approach the same situation differently. Remember that we are working with people, and we are human ourselves (as much as we may wish we were working with robots, or could be an Alexa or Siri with all the answers!). So just as we feel differently on our mat each day, we also feel differently in the workplace each day. There are days when I can completely stick a sequence with lots of balancing asanas and transitions in a power flow, and other days I just can’t link breath to movement and my balance is off. Similarly, your most resilient employee/colleague will have days when s/he is more vulnerable or is feeling “off”. Along the same lines, you might be willing to try a new inversion or pose one day, but on another day just not have the energy. As such, your risk-taker on the team will have days s/he doesn’t feel so bullish. That is why presence is so important and why it is important to practice it each day on our mat.
To be a successful leader, we need to see what is in front of us and inside of us, without the attachment of yesterday or the angst of tomorrow. We must be present for ourselves and for our colleagues and team members. I’ve personally learned that when I am present, I notice more, and my employees see that. They sense I am paying more attention to them and feel I am more compassionate as an employer or boss. How many times have you gone through an entire day, only to learn someone in the office has had something happen and you had no clue? By this time you have missed it – the congratulations or comment of sympathy - because the day is over. Believe me, I am grateful for calendar reminders of birthdays and anniversaries, that tell me what is happening when I’m not paying attention – I couldn’t live without them. But in between those reminders is the need to actually see your team and meet them where they are.
How has presence affected your career and/or leadership skills?