Leadership Lessons from Pilates
Last Summer a friend asked if I’d like to join her Pilates class. “Why not?” I thought. There was nothing to lose except a few pounds and it was high time to change up my fitness routine. After several weeks I was hooked, but not just because of workout itself. I was finding that Pilates and the cues from my amazing instructor, Grainne Murray Laboy, opened up a new way to look at both how I exercise and how I lead.
Joseph Pilates developed his approach to exercise on the principle of Core Strength. By focusing on your abdominals and back, you can create an aligned, long and lean body. Pilates said that his methodology “develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.” Exercises are performed on the mat (think yoga),or can be done using a series of equipment all developed by Pilates himself including the Reformer, Tower, Cadillac, Chair, Barrel and others. I won’t lie – they can look pretty scary with all their springs and handles, but it’s the tension that those springs create that yields amazing results when you work from your core and focus on deliberate movements.
But what is a deliberate movement? It is isolating a muscle or a joint and working just from that muscle. This was a whole new approach for someone who has flitted about from yoga class to boot camps to treadmills to sitting on the couch. Instead of literally muscling through an exercise, you must figure out exactly what it is you are trying to do, let everything else go and do just that one thing. If you aren’t feeling the exercise in the targeted muscles, you change one thing at a time until you do. Only then will you start to get the desired benefits and can repeat it. Once you get the form down, you can start to move with speed, but the speed is worthless without the form.
Am I Contracting the Right Leadership Muscles?
Learning how not to muscle through a challenge requires patience, finesse and focus. Maintaining your form as a leader is no different. As leaders we often get feedback about what’s working and what’s not – both in the what and the how of our work. Maybe we meet all our KPIs but leave bodies in our wake, or our team is thrilled to work for us, but the results aren’t what we or our organizations are aiming for. Certainly those are oversimplified and exaggerated examples, but most leaders have a good idea of their strengths and development opportunities, which are learned and validated by feedback. This feedback can be solicited or not, from peers, employees or leaders, direct or indirect. While it’s helpful to hear it, doing something constructive with it is the real trick. And that is where deliberate movement comes in.
Always a Student
In leadership, just like Pilates, if you muscle through and try five different things to fix one problem it’s difficult to isolate exactly what you did that made an impact. I’ve been practicing making deliberate movements in my leadership, but just like Pilates, if I’m not paying attention and go too fast my form suffers and I catch myself falling into old habits. So, when I hear from peers about something that’s working really well for a team I’m leading or a project I’m involved in, I ask clarifying questions to pin point exactly what is working so I can keep the behavior going. Conversely, when something isn’t going quite as planned, I stop and look at what I’m doing as a leader – and try to get to the root cause and isolate the issue as quickly as possible.
To keep my Pilates practice meaningful, no matter what kind of crazy exercise I may eventually be able to do, it’s crucial to remember that I’ll always be a student of Pilates. There’s always more to learn, and most importantly, there is always form to focus on. I’ll also always consider myself a student of Leadership. The form can never be perfected, just further refined.
Now, off to practice some Pilates mat work!