Leadership T’ai Chi: A Beginner’s Guide

(Originally appeared in Leader to Leader, Drucker Foundation, New York, NY: Number 37, summer 2005)

Like many busy executives (and other people) I experience a fair amount of stress in my life. From managing clients while cultivating new ones, to balancing workload with family responsibilities, to just flying from point A to point B in today’s insecure world, it’s enough to drive a person off the deep end.

But rather than let that happen to me, I decided to do something about it. A friend had told me how much her experience in T’ai Chi was helping her, and it sounded like a novel way to relieve stress. What I didn’t realize was how relevant the ancient principles of T’ai Chi are to effective leadership in the midst of today’s unremitting challenges.

My previous image of T’ai Chi was based on a few business trips to Hong Kong. At dawn I’d look out my hotel window to watch more than a hundred 70 year old Chinese in an excruciatingly slow and synchronized dance. They twisted their bodies in infinitesimal movement, ever-so-deliberately balancing on a single leg for what seemed like forever. Their arms swayed so slowly I could have been watching stop-motion photography of flowers opening their petals.

And all their faces were remarkably serene.

Leadership Lesson 1: Get Grounded

When I first started lessons, our seasoned instructor Beth told the class that despite popular misconceptions, T’ai Chi is a martial art, not a Chinese ballet or some other form of dance. The first task she gave the five assembled students was to stand as solidly as we could. She instructed us to envision the entire weight of our bodies flowing into the heels of our feet, like a deeply-rooted oak tree. I thought this was easy until Beth knocked me over — several times. Yet when she asked me to knock her over it was impossible. With no effort, she just stood her ground (pretty embarrassing, since I was the only man in the class). Beth said that in T’ai Chi, being grounded is fundamental. If you aren’t grounded, you can neither defend nor attack effectively.

Beth’s comments made me consider the first leadership lesson from T’ai Chi: To be successful, leaders need to be grounded. In leadership, being grounded requires determination and consistency in one’s beliefs and actions, despite distraction, difficulty, or even one’s own personality.

We all know executives who are ungrounded. One executive I worked with was the department head of a hospital, and an excellent physician. Her objective was to build the practice by growing a network of referring doctors. Unfortunately, Debbie flitted from one thing to another, like a bumblebee buzzing from one flower to the next. This resulted in bottlenecks to patient care, frustrated nurses, and a leveling off of referrals.

Debbie was ungrounded: she didn’t recognize how easily she was pushed and pulled in so many different directions. What she claimed to be responsiveness masked a lack of grounding toward her goals and her obligations.

In a series of meetings with her staff, she received feedback about her strengths as well as areas that were undermining her effectiveness. At first it was hard for Debbie to admit that her actions were self-defeating. Instead, she blamed others for not taking enough responsibility. But when she acknowledged how weary she was of trying to hold everything together, Debbie had a “flashbulb moment” of recognition in which she saw how she contributed to the situation.

After this, she found ways to become better grounded. For instance, she created personal routines that focused her on a few significant priorities (and kept her on time). She asked the office manager to “keep her honest” with additional feedback when she went off-track. And she made it a point to end each week with a brief meeting with nursing and other staff to review progress and “road bumps.”

But these specific tactics would have quickly fallen by the wayside had Debbie not recognized, on a fundamental level, what was preventing her from achieving goals she had set for herself and for the practice. Over time, she was able to build a sustainable, growing practice grounded in world-class patient care and employee satisfaction.

Leadership Lesson 2: Get Balanced

In another class a while later, Beth had us shift our weight back and forth from one leg to another while keeping our hips square and our torsos straight. I found this seemingly simple task virtually impossible, and asked her what this “balancing act” was all about. Without replying directly, Beth then had us pair up to learn the exercise “pushing hands.”

In pushing hands partners face each other, feet spread apart (for grounding, of course). With the backs of their right hands barely touching, one partner pushes his or her hand against their partner’s hand while the other partner “receives” it, bending backward. Then, in one fluid motion they switch roles, with the receiving partner now pushing forward. An observer would see a swaying couple alternately pressing and yielding their positions as their arms and bodies follow in harmonious movement, hands gently touching the whole time.

Beth said that pushing hands was just one example of another key principle of T’ai Chi: Balance. She described balance from the standpoint of yin and yang. Yin energy is soft, responsive, feminine. Yang energy is hard, pushing, and masculine. Both are fundamental and necessary to defeat an opponent. All martial arts represent a balance of yin and yang. The pushing hands exercise trains our bodies to physically understand the balance of these fundamental forces as we rhythmically push and then yield. Beth said that some of us are more naturally yin, some more naturally yang, but this was no excuse for not developing balance in each.

This is T’ai Chi’s second leadership lesson: Leaders need to be balanced to be successful. The path to balance begins with acknowledging that we are all in some way unbalanced: either too forceful, or not forceful enough. Either too strategic, or too operational. Either too spontaneous, or too planful. Name a polarity, and you can probably figure out which side you gravitate toward.

Yet the trick is not to “balance” in a mechanical or rigid 50/50 ratio along any of these poles. Rather, balance first requires us to view both sides as part of a crucial and valuable dynamic, and second, to know when to shift our energy from one side to the other (like in the pushing hands exercise). This sounds easy but isn’t. Our biases prevent us from valuing what we are less familiar with; our experience teaches us to rely on actions that were successful before, despite new circumstances.

Yet a tightrope walker doesn’t stay balanced by remaining in a fixed position. A tightrope walker sways from one side to the other, always shifting weight to compensate for the situation (wind, rope tension, her own weight, etc.) to remain in balance. An absence of balance creates distorted leadership and sick organizations, and, we are all tightrope walkers.

I was reminded of Neil, who took over the information technology department of a major consumer products company. Neil was hired to drive change through the system so that developers and system analysts would focus more on the bottom line than on their own pet projects. Neil did succeed in shaking things up: he replaced half his executive team and cut out what he considered “frivolous projects.” Predictably, staff morale fell to an all time low. Neil was awarded a big bonus for cutting costs after his first year, but internal clients began complaining about a decline in service.

In his second year Neil’s boss asked him to continue to be demanding, but to also focus on improving client service levels and on staff development. Yet Neil continued pressing his managers to get rid of what he called “dead wood” and continued to cut investment in staff development. After several more exhortations from his boss, Neil still couldn’t display energy other than “yang.” What Neil didn’t realize was that conditions changed, though he hadn’t. Even after he was asked to resign he kept complaining that the people at the company “just didn’t get it.”

A happier example was Craig, promoted from Vice President of Sales for the US-based subsidiary of a global consumer products company to become President of their Canadian subsidiary. Craig was the quintessential sales executive, with charismatic charm and capacity to inspire trust and commitment. Yet he had never held executive responsibility for departments such as marketing, production, or distribution.

In Craig’s first month, he visited every department, and spoke not only with managers but with most front-line employees, as well. Yet between his second month and his twelfth month he hardly returned to those departments. He focused instead on sales, replacing the vice president, re-organizing the function and constantly visiting field sales offices and clients. Unfortunately, while Craig was fixing the sales department (which wasn’t broken) other key functions in the company suffered – marketing budgets got out of hand, product quality declined, and distribution deadlines were missed.

Craig was out of balance. While he was a great teacher and developer of sales people, he wasn’t a great student when he needed to be. Simply put, Craig valued what he knew more than what he didn’t know. Fortunately, Craig’s bosses gave him time to turn around his leadership, and he did. By the end of his second year, he had learned enough about other functions to strategically lead them, to hold key managers accountable with the right indicators, and to invest money and people resources wisely. Craig’s success was based on first recognizing that he was out of balance, and then shifting his energy from “yang” to “yin.” All leaders must learn their own “balancing act” at some point, or remain limited in their scope.

Leadership Lesson 3: Get Flexible

I thought that after a few months of T’ai Chi I was getting the hang of it. But in a recent session, after our warm-up exercises, Beth approached me, pulled my shoulders down, flopped my arms back and forth, and yelled, “RELAX.” She said my tense energy was not permitting me to be flexible, another fundamental principle of T’ai Chi. She even said that my energy was affecting the other students, and I better get my act together.

Beth asked if I did other forms of exercise. I said I ran and lifted weights. She nodded and accused me of having “blocked chi.” I didn’t like the sound of that, and timidly asked what she meant.

Chi, she explained, is the energy that flows like a river through our bodies. It is the deep breath that infuses our every cell. Tension, holding on tightly, worry and pressuring others all work against chi energy.  She said even traditional exercise that builds muscle through dynamic tension, i.e., weight lifting, blocks chi, because it requires us to hold on so tightly through the exercise. This tension remains in our muscles long after the exercise is over. The goal of T’ai Chi, she explained, was ultimate flexibility so an opponent could not land a solid blow.

She said that stress was blocking my chi, inhibiting my creativity and vitality. Beth suggested I suspend my regular exercise routine for a while, and focus instead on flexibility through disciplined practice.

In the weeks that followed, I discovered that I could stretch and move my body in ways I never thought I could (and even discovered muscles I didn’t know I had). This flexibility also helped me release some of the tension that led me to T’ai Chi in the first place. I was finally getting it, not intellectually, but (literally) in the gut. So this was leadership lesson #3: Without flexibility, leaders can’t grow.

On my drive home from one of these classes I thought of Jake, the founder of a financial services firm I had worked with. Jake was a strong, achievement-oriented individual. He had a habit of making every key decision, crowding meetings with his own ideas and frowning in critical judgment of others. Even his most senior executives told him only what he wanted to hear as they half-heartedly implemented his plans. But when Jake fell seriously ill the consequences of his tight-fisted leadership philosophy were felt. The firm ground to a halt; interim leaders were paralyzed to make substantive decisions in his absence. I was amazed at how quickly the firm declined.

When Jake returned he realized how his own pattern of behavior had conditioned his staff into a state of inflexible bureaucracy. He vowed to become a more flexible leader, and to his credit, he did. He sought new ideas, recognized people for disagreeing with him in public, empowered task forces with authority, and asked probing questions rather than imposing his view all the time. Yet he was still Jake, strong and achievement-oriented. He just expressed his strength in a new way, not through authority, but through a source of power he didn’t know he had. Now Jake could encourage flexibility where once there was only one way – his way. Beth would say he unblocked his company’s chi. Jake would say he got smart. It didn’t matter. It worked.

A Fourth Leadership Lesson?

I’ve been at T’ai Chi a while, but the leadership lessons don’t stop. During a recent class, when I expressed frustration at my inability to learn enough to complete a simple exercise, Beth laughed and told me to have patience with myself. When I asked her how long she had been practicing T’ai Chi, she said that though she has been teaching for over 15 years she was still just a beginner. I thought she was pulling my leg but she was serious. A beginner, she explained, was someone still passionate about disciplined practice, not just about results. A beginner, she said, was someone still passionate about learning, not just about being the expert.

I thought this the best leadership lesson of all.