Slow Down, Do Less, Observe More: A Leadership Journey

My exercise routine in the mid-nineties involved getting up before my kids and working out to fitness videos in our basement. During a year when my job was joyless, I spent my downtime (there was quite a bit!) exploring a website with reviews of fitness videos–planning my next morning. Over time I accumulated a significant video collection and kept raising the bar on intensity and impact–adding props so I could include the then-very-popular step aerobics. While I started weaving in some high-intensity yoga, (yes, that’s the kind of yoga that I was drawn to) aerobics were the heart of my practice. That approach to exercise ended with (surprise!) one bad landing from a too-high step and a painful knee injury. Suddenly, I was looking for low-impact videos, spending more time with yoga videos (and starting to actually hear what the teachers were saying,) re-calibrating my practice.

Alas, this was not enough for my injured knee. Sitting on airplanes and going down stairs was excruciating. A bent knee would hurt after just a few minutes. I remembered that my mom, who was struggling with chronic pain, had found some relief with the Feldenkrais method. Created by Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli engineer and physicist, it is described as “an educational system that uses movement to teach self-awareness and improve function.” I found a practitioner who had been trained by Feldenkrais himself and worked with her–in hands-on sessions and using cassette tapes (MP3s are now available!) for well over a year.

It’s difficult to describe the Feldenkrais method. It was subtle, slow and radically different from anything I’d done before. The hands-on work was light, easy and never, ever painful. Feldenkrais challenged the notion of “no pain, no gain” and suggested that we learn best when we are at ease. Eileen never even touched my knee. She seemed to hover over it and gently work with other parts of my body. The tapes were a revelation, too. The instruction often went like this: “Turn to your right, now do 50% of that, now do 50% of that.” The message was to do less, not more. To do it slowly. And to observe your movements. I didn’t know at the time that Feldenkrais was describing the property of neuroplasticity before anyone else I knew was using this language. I also didn’t know that, when I lay on the floor doing extraordinarily boring tapes with the subtlest of movements, I was practicing mindfulness. I did know that my knee pain was diminishing dramatically and that I was able to move with greater ease and comfort.

As I was exploring movement in this new way, my career was advancing. I’d long ago left that joyless job, moved to California, and was assuming increasing levels of responsibility in a training and development organization. I was pursuing a masters degree that required late night and early morning hours. Working full-time, raising kids, doing a graduate degree, fitting in exercise–it was taking a toll.There was never enough time and I always felt that I should be doing more.

One day, just as I was finishing up the graduate program, I got a call from the school letting me know that I was was going to be named as the outstanding student in my graduating class. As the call ended, while a small part of me felt honored, my dominant emotion was frustration–with myself. It was time to apply the lessons of Feldenkrais to my life. I had poured myself into my classes, spent far more time than I really needed to (or had)–because I didn’t know how to do less and could not recognize when less was more than enough. I was paying too high a price for being all-in, all the time.

As I began to think more about it, I also realized that doing more was not only making my life harder, it was getting in my way as a leader. I wasn’t giving others the space to bring themselves fully to their work. I began to notice when I was doing too much of the thinking and the planning and not allowing others to step into the challenges that would help them grow. I needed to learn to step back, to make room for others.

This was a turning point for me as a leader. I began to experiment (though I wouldn’t have used that word at the time) with slowing down, doing less and observing more in my work. Most of the time other people stepped in–and sometimes they didn’t. I experimented with different ways of responding when they didn’t–short of taking over. Thanks to Feldenkrais, I knew what it felt like in my body to slow down. I was able, with practice, to translate that to work settings and, in the process, becoming a better leader. And, remarkably, one with more time for both work and home.

I realize now that Eileen, my Feldenkrais practitioner, was also my first leadership coach. The shifts I made when working with her were essential to the shifts I made in my leadership practices. Since then I’ve developed a regular yoga and meditation practice, and learned many in-the-moment centering practices that have, collectively,  further enabled me to embody the idea of “slow down, do less and observe more.” To a degree I couldn’t have imagined, this has become who I am. I can still move too fast, step in too quickly, speak too much. And, I do these things a lot less frequently–catching myself a whole lot sooner. I am better able to recognize when I am not present and find my way back to presence.

Almost every leader I work with struggles with the challenge of too little time and too much to do. Many of my clients complain about poor time management skills, hoping that there are ways to organize their work–productivity hacks–to make them more efficient. Without exception, at some point each of these leaders recognizes that it’s not about managing time better, it’s about thinking differently about how we “be” as leaders so that what we “do” begins to shift.

This kind of shift requires more than training our brains–it requires training our entire being, including our bodies. We can experiment with different practices, large and small. A regular yoga or meditation practice or a bodywork practice like Feldenkrais can have a dramatic impact. Just as important and easier to embed in your day are “micro-practices.” Taking a breath before you speak, five breaths before meetings, short centering practices several times a day–simple, quick, regular. What my teacher, Doug Silsbee, called “experiential neuroplasticity.” The key is to find something that works for you, and through practice and repetition, turn it into a habit. And then get curious about what shifts in the way that you respond. Does it allow you to slow down? to do less? to observe more?

Shifting in this way can feel challenging–even scary. Letting go of how we define ourselves–through our doing–and allowing ourselves to be shaped more by how we “be” is not so easy. It’s likely we’ll be pulled back (over and over again) to the comfort of doing more. Paradoxically, in fast-paced, increasingly complex environments that make more and more demands on us, learning to “be” a leader is the only sure fire way I know to thrive–to take care of ourselves and serve the people around us.