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FEATURE: An Interview with Sara Grigsby

by Mira Ames, J.D., Communications Consultant

M: In last month’s interview, you talked about four traditions that have informed your work as an organizational consultant, facilitator and trainer.

SG: Yes. They are yoga, holistic health, system dynamics and quality improvement.

M: You’ve selected yoga as part of your newsletter title. Help us understand why.

SG: The word yoga can be translated a number of ways– as integration, joining, harnessing or unifying. Yoga is the work or discipline that it takes to unify oneself with something bigger, deeper and more profound. Hatha yoga, one of many yogic traditions, is a practice that combines specific physical poses, or asanas, with breath awareness to integrate, align, and free our body, breath, mind, and heart. It brings health to all levels of the practitioner: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

There are two reasons why I’ve used yoga in the title of the newsletter. First, yoga requires ongoing practice and discipline. So the “yoga” of leadership is another way of saying that leadership takes on-going work. It’s active.

Secondly, the work of a leader is actually very similar to the work of a yoga practitioner. A yoga practitioner is discovering and cultivating health and integration on the individual level. A leader is aligning and integrating at the organization level. Each is connecting deeply to a bigger picture and acting at the same time in the present moment and immediate circumstance. The yoga of leadership is discovering and cultivating health, vitality, and productivity at all levels -- in yourself, your workforce, your processes and systems, and the organization as a whole.

M: Say more about this process of discovering and cultivating health.

SG: Fundamentally, the yoga of leadership is the work it takes to establish a state of dynamic balance -- moving between stability and change. This balancing starts with and results in flow at every level – from a flow of breath to a creative flow of ideas to a process flow. A leader who is established in a dynamically balanced state in his or herself and who can extend that balance in order to move the organization towards it goals, toward health – that person is practicing the yoga of leadership. It’s not your textbook definition of leadership!

M: How does this view compare to traditional theories of leadership?

SG: To make this comparison, let’s look at the traditional views of management and leadership. During the industrial revolution, managers were more or less organizers of work and supervisors of others. Their skills fall into three buckets: technical, human and conceptual. Currently, management is defined as the process of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling an organization’s human, financial, material and other resources, to increase its effectiveness. It’s certainly broader than “organizer and supervisor” yet the emphasis is still on someone else performing the work. I think our more cynical view of managers as “suits” sitting in an office, distant from the “real” work, stems from this history.

Leadership is generally listed as one of the functions of management. Its traditional definition always includes motivating and inspiring others to do something that they might otherwise not do. Here’s a definition from Organization Behavior by Jennifer George and Gareth Jones. “The exercise of influence by one member of a group or organization over other members to help the group or organization achieve its goals.” They define “leader” as “an individual who is able to influence group or organizational members to help the group or organization achieve its goals.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge describe leaders as those who “mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done.” “[Leadership] is not about being in a position (as if Leadership was a place) but about having the courage and spirit to make a significant difference.” According to these definitions, anybody can exercise leadership and anyone can be a leader. It is not something confined to those whose job title contains the word “leader” or “executive.”

M: And do they align with your view?

SG: I see the interaction between the control function and the change function embedded in the traditional definitions of management and leadership. Managers control resource constraints in order to reach organizational goals. They motivate others to move in new directions. And in addition, I see an emerging recognition that anyone in an organization is capable of exhibiting leadership. In The Dance of Change, Peter Senge categorizes leaders into three types: network leaders, line leaders and the executive leadership. I would also add emerging leaders to the list.

But there are a few things missing or at least not emphasized. I don’t see an emphasis on practice, on balancing, on integration and alignment, or on an overarching goal of health. Managers and leaders are performing the functions of planning, organizing, supervising and inspiring to some end, and that is to integrate all the parts of the organization into a whole – a well-functioning and dynamic organization. I think that words like health, dynamic balance, and integration give a more vibrant meaning to the work of managers and leaders.

“Yoga” speaks to the discipline and practice of leadership. Anyone great, any true leader, acts consciously and often is rising above his or her self in order to lead. The standard definition of leadership as “the ability of a leader to get others to do what they might not otherwise do to reach a vision” doesn’t speak, in my mind, to the self-discipline, the responsibility and practice it takes on a daily basis to get this outcome. Beyond that, and this is my bias, the best leaders are inspiring, mobilizing, stabilizing and freeing-up the health and potential in themselves, their organizations and communities.

M: Can you give an example of how a person effectively balances the change and stability functions?

SG: Let’s use an Operations Manager or Shift Supervisor as an example. If that person is exhibiting leadership and management functions, then that person is aware of their operational processes - the tolerances, variances, customer requirements, etc. They’ve trained their staff on performance expectations and have feedback and evaluation processes in place. They understand the constraints of their budget, etc. Their goal is to predict and control outcomes – because management is about prediction and standardization.

In addition to standardizing what is, they have skills in improvement. They understand what it is to tweak, change or redesign processes. They can learn from mistakes and adapt. They work towards a vision that is aligned with the rest of the organization. And that might imply a new vision. And, in line with the traditional view of leaders, they have the ability to inspire others to do the same. It’s not just what they do; it’s how they work with others to improve as well.

M: I understand your example but it would seem that day in and day out, the challenge is to translate this broad conceptual framework into a coherent daily practice.

SG: That is the challenge that we all face everyday. How do we bring our values to life and live our principles? What is the translation process, the discernment mechanism and the personal state of being that allows this to happen? Next time we’ll take up more specific practices of leadership and in subsequent issues we’ll bring the definitions and models to life.

Mira Ames is an editor, writer and communications consultant. For the past three years, she has worked with Sara Grigsby and Healthy Systems on a variety of projects, including editing and helping to write training manuals on Meeting Management and Facilitation, as well as Project Management. She takes great pleasure in helping her clients use the written word to express with clarity and depth what matters most to them. Mira is also a professionally trained facilitator and mediator, has a J.D. from Suffolk Law School in Boston, and is a member of the Oregon State Bar

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