February 2012 is apparently going to be a pretty rough month for John Friend. I'm nowhere near able to comment on his specific situation (alleged misconduct involving of sex, drugs, and money, basically your typical abuse of power theme) but I do think these recent events bring up an interesting topic that I have spent a good deal of time thinking about: the seat of a teacher.
I really like the phrase even though it's sickeningly yoga-esque. I like it because it's a reminder of what I think is the most important criteria for being a good leader: humility. Sitting down is an act of humility, much like bowing or opening your arms to greet someone. On top of that, our bum, aka our seat, is often the body part we are least proud of, the one which is least representative of our confidence and individual awesomeness. So, when we refer to our seat, we are talking about the part of us, or the role we are serving in, which is entirely about supporting others, and not about feeding our own sense of worth. The seat of a teacher is the one nugget of altruistic truth that makes the entire effort of leading worthwhile. It is within the seat of a teacher, where the purity of unidirectional, unconditional giving is manifested.
As a leader, we often find ourselves in situations where the perspective of those we are in charge of leading is skewed. I've observed this from both sides, both in my own adoration of some of my leaders, and in the way I've been treated while leading. A special sensitivity is necessary to hold the seat properly, sometimes a gentle touch is appropriate, sometimes a strong push is needed, and other times an objective mirror is the tool that works best. Each situation is unique because each individual is unique and it takes some intelligence to avoid hammering a square peg into a round hole. What is universal, however, is how we as humans act when we look up to someone as our teacher and how vulnerable we become by doing so. It's as pure as the love of a child, but the effect on the leader can be dangerous and intoxicating.
I've been in charge of a group of 10 software developers, I've coached a group of 15 or so runners, I've lead 2 yoga classes, I've taken care of a dog for 10 years, and I've been a big brother for almost one year. Such is my leadership experience. It's not much, I would characterize it as very limited, nothing that comes close to being an actual parent and being responsible for the beginning stages of life or being in charge of hundreds of people in a large company. I consider myself as a complete novice when it comes to leadership, an unseasoned rookie. And, yet, with all that said, I think I've still learned quite a few lessons from those limited experiences. Paying attention is the best chance to learn, as the opportunities to see what doesn't work very well are ubiquitous in our daily life. It is upon that experience which I base my premise that humility, above all else, is the key to high quality leadership.
The thing about humility is that it there are a ton of words that can be used which might seem to imply humility, empathy, and understanding. I'm not talking about words. People can lead by using the right words for a period of time but eventually words fall short. Words are the tools of salesmen and initial impressionists. Words are wonderful, don't get me wrong, I love words, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, words are limited. We remember actions and more than anything, we decipher character based on interactions in 4 dimensions. The inner marrow of personality is eventually exposed, and our complex reactions to people in our life are reflective of the judgements we make about that marrow even if it takes years. One of the best parts of life is that we all like different things, we all are attracted to different people. There are those who desire words of affirmation even if they aren't backed up by intrinsic moral fiber, and then there are those who seek out that inner fiber even if it is disguised by all sorts of crazy words. I could just as easily be describing the dating process as the selection of a guru, the search for the right job, or the method by which a team of champions is assembled.
I'm not going to comment on John Friend's moral fiber because I haven't seen it and I don't know any of the facts. But I know that I can only respect leaders who have demonstrated their humility to me. Humility is having the option to do something for you but using that option instead to do something for someone else. Humility is putting other's needs in front of your own. To win my adoration as your student, you have to show me that you would carry me up a mountain on your back. Shane does this for me every morning we work together, he does so with compassion, and through sharing the joy he feels for creating positive changes for my benefit. I think I get more positive energy from experiencing his humility than I do from any of the physical capabilities his efforts have brought into my practice. This morning, for example, I pulled off my first attempt at titibasana. Sure, he was holding my feet for me, and even then it still didn't look anywhere close to the way it should look, but I owe all of the attempt to his continued belief and guidance. I realized immediately afterwards that I was more stoked to feel like I was rewarding his instruction with this attempt than I was about the significance of the attempt for myself. Shane doesn't work with me to earn money or to make himself feel awesome, he does it because holding the seat of a teacher in this context is his dharma and he believes in the importance of that.
I'm not sure how effective I am as a leader. The feedback I've received has been, for the most part, fairly positive, but there has been some negative feedback as well. Some of those I have lead have mentioned they felt empowered by my ability to explain, assist, and direct them to solve problems, build applications, lay out a design, execute a training plan, or work towards alignment. Ironically I remember my own mother saying what a horrible teacher I was when I tried to help her with Word Perfect, back in the days before Windows and Microsoft Word. Maybe I have improved since then. I'd like to believe that is the case. Regardless, I'm convinced I can keep improving as I get older.
However, some of the negative feedback about my leadership is also very valid. I get carried away at times and I say some crazy stuff. It's easy to see why. All of the positive energy of being in a leadership position has an effect, it is a powerful drug, and it can skew perspective on both sides. It's really just basic math, if you take a strong leader's personality as x and divide it up among 15 different students, you get x/15 going towards each student. Then if you add up all of the energy from those students, averaging y, you get 15y going towards the teacher. If we assume y is at least half of x, the ratio of teacher energy to student energy is 15y : (x/15) = 15(x/2) : (x/15) = 15 * 15 / 2 : 1 = 225 : 2. Or, in words, the leader of a small group of 15 people receives two orders of magnitude more energy from the students than each student receives from the teacher.
The only check and balance on this effect is humility. And that humility has to originate from within, it cannot be enforced by an external entity. We have to actively temper our perception of own greatness in order to effectively lead others who will want to see us as greater than we actually are. We have to become servants in order to be great leaders. We have to do everything in our power to continue to support those below us if we want to lead them to their own excellence. Leadership is entirely about holding that seat of a teacher, about protecting, nurturing, and going to battle for those in your care. Far too often, especially in the corporate workplace, leadership centers around looking good to the next layer of authority, making the grade, passing the test, hitting the mark. I think that is why I dislike corporate leadership so much.
I know this goes against the mantra of "love thyself" that is so prevalent in yoga. Perhaps the desire for self love is exactly what makes yoga so susceptible to cults and leaders who abuse their power. I know that whatever leadership skills I do have center around my own belief that I am a student. If I am able to inspire or instruct in any meaningful way, if I am a halfway decent friend, it all is based on a foundation of sharing what little I've learned or what I've managed to figure out after multiple failures rather than dictating the correct plan of attack or prescribing a standard of care. I know that I relate much better to people who can poke fun at themselves than I do to those who highlight their accomplishments or achievements. Because a little bit of humility, a splash of self loathing, coupled with the sense of humor to highlight individual absurdities, is a sign of a balanced human perspective in my book.
I usually comes across to other people as the guy who is too hard on myself, and I accept that it seems that way on the surface. I don't ever really want to be content with who I am today because I can always do better tomorrow. I can always try harder, and each new day is an opportunity to improve in all sorts of regards. It's not very yogic to be constantly searching for more humility, but that is my path, just as I constantly search to improve my fitness, my eating, and the central balance of my life. I accept my discontent and I use it to thrive. I know that's not how most people operate.
Being a leader is such a unique and delicate responsibility. I do not take it lightly on either end, not as a student, nor when I attempt to hold the seat of a teacher. I know we are all human, and we are all imperfect beings, but I think playing by the general rules goes a long way towards sustainability. Don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't abuse privileges. It's all pretty basic stuff, so I don't know why it's so hard for so many people. I believe our greatest responsibility as a leader is to look after those we are in charge of, even if that means putting our own desires aside. Maybe I just take it all way too seriously, but I simply don't know how to operate any other way.