Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Inward Journey to being a leader

In the last post, I mentioned that yoga is a great tool for learning to turn inward, where we can learn to trust ourselves from our need to physically adjust an asana to the need to adjust our lives. By turning inward, we see how minute adjustments can result in enormous shifts.

Just as I posted that piece, I went back to my Google Reader account and saw a link to this article, actually a speech given by William Deresiewicz at West Point. The title is, “Solitude and Leadership.” While it is a long piece, I highly recommend taking the time to read it. First, he explains his students at Yale, “So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, ‘excellent sheep.’” Does that sound like anyone you know?

Deresiewicz concludes that leadership means thinking outside the box; it means knowing yourself well enough that when the time comes to make the difficult decisions, you can rely on your own morality and not on what society and your peers tell you is right. And this requires turning off the distractions of modern life – twitter, facebook, blackberries, RSS feeds (note the irony of my finding this great piece through my RSS feed), and even the newspapers. It means taking the time to ask yourself what you think about the big issues, asking yourself what you think of the posts you use to distract yourself throughout the day. Why? Because more and more research shows that multitasking – no matter how good you think you are at it – actually makes it more difficult to concentrate on any task. The more we flip between tasks, the more difficult such flipping becomes.

As an English teacher, Deresiewicz suggests we take the time to read books, old books that have stood the test of time. I was a Comparative Literature and French major in college, so I would second that recommendation any day (and seeing as I now have a kindle, and classics are free, I have read a lot of them recently; let me just say, there is a reason many of them are classics). But more than just read them, he suggests we take the time to think about them, to discover what we think about them, not just read them because they are there.

But as a yoga teacher, I am going to suggest another tool – yoga and meditation. I often ask myself what the number one benefit of yoga is for lawyers and others living in the modern world. For me, and I think for many others, it is simply the fact that I do it. When I am doing yoga, I am not on facebook, I am not on twitter, and I am not checking my email. I may be thinking about something else, but at least those are my own thoughts. The ability to know yourself, according to Deresiewicz is what it means to be a leader.

Of course, in yoga and meditation, we are hoping to learn to control the mind to stop what Patanjali, who wrote The Yoga Sutras, calls “the monkey mind.” But there is a reason it is called a practice; we do not learn to stop the chatter in one fell swoop. No, it takes time. It takes years. Sometimes it never happens. But the point is that, for however long we give ourselves, we get away from the outside chatter. We learn to be comfortable with ourselves. We learn to watch our thoughts and our bodies. We learn to understand what they are telling us.

So this Inward Journey becomes our path to being ourselves and being leaders. But what does it matter if we are leaders? After all, we are not the plebe class at West Point. Leadership is a skill to be used everywhere, from the law firm to the community, from the government offices, to parenting. Being a leader means being an engaged citizen, and lawyers especially need to embody the qualities of leadership when helping clients.

Thus, the inward journey provides us the space to shut out the world, and from within we can learn to take control of our own lives and our own thoughts. As lawyers, people come to us when they are in disaster mode, and we have to able to respond appropriately. As Deresiewicz says, “Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon.” We need to know how to understand our instincts, and we need to know what we think before disaster strikes. They are two sides of the same coin.

As I said in the last post, this inward journey is about learning to trust yourself. But the first step of that is being comfortable with yourself, being comfortable away from the outside chatter. It is sometimes scary and often, especially at the beginning, lonely. But the journey helps us become leaders, the people who can help make this world a better place because we are not confined by what other people think and feel. Instead, we have the control and the knowledge and the faith to do what we know is right.

But we must take the first step. What keeps you from turning off the computer? What keeps you attached to the facebook feed? Are you ready to be alone with yourself? Are you ready to give yourself the gift of solitude? Are you ready to trust yourself and share your leadership with the world?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Great post, Rebecca! Lately I've been thinking a lot about this idea of being an "excellent sheep." I'm glad to hear I'm not alone.

  2. Thanks, Tara. And I totally know what you mean. Sometimes it is difficult to admit, but once we do, I think we can learn from that knowledge and find our own path.

  3. Before being a leader, you should know how to discern right from wrong to properly and morally lead your group to the right path. Being open to suggestions and having good judgement is also needed to be a successful leader.

  4. Well said, Alexander, thanks. I definitely think it is important to be open to suggestions. That is part of how we learn about ourselves the most. Thanks!