Why good nonprofit leadership is like yoga
Updated: Jan 15
No one who knows me would say that I’m the most laid back person they’ve ever met.
Not by a long-shot. I have to admit though, that as much as I miss my beloved Boston, these past 19 years in San Diego have mellowed me.
(I don’t ever flip the bird to anyone when I’m driving – not even when someone is spacing out at a green light!) And while it may sound very stereotypical laid-back Californian for me to say this: Doing yoga on a regular basis has provided me tremendous insight on how to be a better nonprofit leader.
Despite the fact that I’m not close to being able to touch my toes, I’ve learned:
Balance is really important. So many nonprofit leaders think that if they work themselves nonstop, they’ll set a good example for their staff of how dedicated they are to whatever it is they’re doing. I know I used to think that way (and acted that way for eons). There have been a gazillion studies indicating that taking breaks and taking vacations are critical to increased productivity yet armies of nonprofit managers somehow blow that off. Finding balance between work and relaxation really does improve thinking and productivity.
To be mindful. In a nutshell, being mindful means slowing down to think about what you’re doing so that you can carefully consider a given situation. In yoga, if you’re not careful, even the simplest move can result in an injury. For nonprofits, whether you’re dealing with donors, employees, board members or allied organizations, it’s important to take some time to think about how your actions can affect those work partners. If I had a dollar for every time a donor or employee was offended because someone wasn’t strategic enough to solicit or consider their input (and feelings), I’d be rolling in dough. Sometimes it only takes a phone call, a casual face-to-face chat, or just a few minutes to ruminate on what others might think in order to make a better-informed decision.
You can be strong without being forceful.
Yoga is a great tool for building core body strength but it does not resemble traditional body-building in any way shape or form. In the nonprofit sector, we need to convey confidence in what we believe by gathering and sharing data and stories that support our position and articulating those in a clear and compelling way. Any good fundraiser will tell you that those three tools are the keys to success. Please don’t let the ugly outbursts we’ve seen lately from the highest ranking elected and appointed officials in our nation persuade you to adopt a less transparent and gentle approach.
To stay focused.
Nine times out of ten when I arrive at yoga, my mind is whirling in a hundred different directions with thoughts about everything else that is going on in my life. I’ve learned though that I can’t balance if I’m not focused – I’ll literally wobble around and tip over. In the nonprofit work world, it’s hard to stay focused because there’s so much going on and there are so many fires to put out. We’re doing the work and raising the money to support the work so our cash flow input isn’t necessarily related at all to our production. That can lead to us chasing dollars or new projects to stay afloat. It’s important to stay focused on what is core to our mission in order to advance the cause we’re working on.
It’s not a contest. Sometimes I’ll glance over at another student in the class and think “Wow, if I practiced yoga every day for 1,000 years I’d never be able to do that!” I do what I can do to the best of my ability and keep practicing so that I (hopefully) get better. Many of the issues that nonprofits are working on aren’t going to go away. Ever. If we see ourselves as competing with other organizations, perhaps it’s time to explore partnering with them to make a greater impact (unless, of course, our philosophies and practices are so vastly different).
There are so many other parallels I could make: being deliberate with your actions, not moving too quickly but moving carefully, and of course, knowing that doing it all by yourself isn’t nearly half as much fun or nearly as fulfilling.
The important thing is to slow down, reflect, and act with intention.
San Diegans who want to join me at yoga can contact The Japanese Friendship Garden or Heart and Soul Yoga for more information.
Pat Libby is a San Diego based management consultant to nonprofits and philanthropies. She has helped numerous organizations realign their focus and strategize for the future.
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