Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Recent events both in my life and in the news have me thinking a lot about leadership. What does it mean to lead? What are the tools of leadership? How is it accomplished? Through words? Acts? Rules? Titles? How do we create positive change?
Since entering the workforce over twenty years ago I have observed over and over the curious effect that business owners have on workplace culture. In one job I had, the owner was barely, if ever, present. Much of the standard operating procedure was learned not through explicit rules, but by observing other employees. Though never explicitly stated, the ability of employees to comply with implicit workplace standards determined their success within the business. Over time, I got to know the owners and realized that the interactions between people and customers reflected the owner’s personality and style, even between people whom they had never met. How was this possible if there was no stated rule or articulated request for the behavior I was observing? Clearly, there was more to leadership than rules and regulations.
Polyvagal Theory and Human Interaction
When I learned about Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, things became much less mysterious. The vagus nerve is one of ten cranial nerves. The vagus nerve is unique because it wanders through the body (vagus means wandering in Latin) and makes up the major part of the parasympathetic nervous system (often called the rest and digest system). Polyvagal Theory describes how the vagus nerve has two parts, the evolutionarily newer part being responsible for our sense of safety in social interactions. This new part (called the ventral vagus nerve) is always on, monitoring facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Through this part of our nervous system we resonate with each other and co-regulate our physiological response to stimuli.
Mirror Neurons and Empathy
Mirror neurons are another way we impact each others’ experience. Located in the prefrontal cortex, mirror neurons cause us to respond to other people’s pains and joys as if they were our own. For instance, notice what happens in your body when you watch someone fall. If your mirror neurons are working, you’ll feel a jolt of pain in your own body. Mirror neurons contribute to our ability to empathize with another person and to get in sync with them during conversation.
Taking Polyvagal theory and mirror neurons into account, it makes sense that workplace culture would organize itself spontaneously around the person with authority. The owner or CEO sets the tone through direct interaction with upper management. The ventral vagus nerve and mirror neurons pulls them effortlessly into sync. Upper management passes the modus operandi down the chain and the employees reinforce it through interactions with each other.
Building Conscious Community
All of this holds true for yoga studio owners as well. The intentions of the studio owner trickle down through the teachers all the way into the present moment experience of a student on their mat. The way the studio owner interacts with and demonstrates respect for others affects the quality of interactions between teachers, as well as between teachers and students. It affects how teachers hold space within the studio and the impact their intentions have on their students. It shows up in the organization of the objects in the studio space (props, stereo system, storage cubbies), and in how clean and tidy the studio is kept. It can be observed in the decorations, the lighting, the music, the noise pollution from the street or neighboring businesses. All of this, from the general vibe to the color of the curtains, impacts experience via the vagus nerve, and influences the quality and depth of community we create around our practice.
It's magic. It's biology.
I am no longer surprised by the phenomenon of invisible influence. More than rules, titles or speeches, the intention with which we show up to life is leadership. Each of us leads by example, because people are designed to resonate with each other. Our animal bodies are constantly tracking and interpreting other animal bodies. We are designed to dance and sing together, to mimic, and to play along. It’s magic, and it’s biology. Everyone within our sphere of influence is affected, not just by the things we do consciously and with intention, but equally by all the things we are unconscious of (and we all have a slew of these).
We have no idea how our behavior might influence someone’s path, how it might be the exact teaching someone needs in the moment when paths cross. We lead through integrity and through authenticity, just as much as we lead through avarice and deception. It impacts everyone we interact with in ways that are deeper and more fundamental than thought and action and speech. If you are frustrated with the leadership in your community don’t despair.
Being yourself is leadership. Be brave. Be you.