Real-Time Leadership: A Yoga Lesson

Stephen Axel
SVP, Robertson Lowstuter, Inc.

For those of you who attend a fitness class, I bet you have a great teacher or instructor.  Whether it is their personality, expertise, or personalized instruction, one or all of those factors make your workout fun and enjoyable; if you really don’t like your teacher, I doubt you’ll keep going.   So, imagine my surprise when I went into my favorite yoga class and found no teacher.  The culprit:  A scheduling error. 12 people were ready for Sunday yoga practice with no one to lead.

Before I had time to roll up my yoga mat and resign to working out on my own, one of my fellow classmates, Howard, suggested that we teach the class together.  At first I thought, ‘This is our club’s responsibility and that’s why I pay them.’  However, I also quickly concluded that there were 10 other yoga students that would be denied their class as well.  So, Howard and I agreed and we moved our mats to the front of the class and began to teach.

What happened?  Real-time leadership.  Both Howard and I were presented with a situation where we knew action was needed.  Neither he nor I are trained as yoga instructors, but we both know a bit of yoga and instinctively felt that we could do this…together.  While I was instructing the group on a set of moves, Howard was ready with another sequence of moves when I concluded.

In essence, real-time leadership is about taking control of some event that is unplanned or unforeseen.  It takes quick thinking and action when you least think you’re ready or needed to do something.  The bigger the risk, the more courage it takes.  Real-time leadership is a defining moment in time; it defines who we are and the lives we impact.  It also changes our boundaries of what is possible.  It certainly required Howard and I to stretch ourselves and step into the role of leaders.

The truth is, there are many opportunities for real-time leadership.  This is just a short list:

  • Kids/elderly parents in emergency situations;
  • Damaging storms/weather/flooding/blackouts;
  • Medical emergencies at local coffee shops, bars, or wherever;
  • Hostile/terrorist events (train stations, planes, large gatherings, etc.);
  • Stepping in to mediate a conflict situation at work.

In addition to the yoga example, I will always remember my 96-year old Grandfather answering a reporter’s questions about how he shot an intruder in his home through his locked bedroom door.  He smiled and answered:  “When you’re a doctor, you have to think fast and act faster.”  His quick real-time leadership caused both intruders to flee his house, keeping his wife and himself safe.  It also enabled the police to arrest one of the intruders 45-minutes later in a local ER while being treated for a gunshot wound to the abdomen.  The reality: we are all leaders when we assume the responsibility for an outcome, regardless of our age, gender, education, or formal organizational role.

Feel free to share your experience about a circumstance in which you demonstrated real-time leadership, particularly in a business setting.   What preconceived beliefs about yourself did you have to re-assess and shift?  What was the outcome?  Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

Oh, and in case you are interested on how our yoga class turned out…it was great!


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