THE BLOG
09/10/2013 05:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

The Case for Being Ourselves

A regular fixture at the historic Safety Harbor Resort in Tampa Bay, Florida, I took my corner spot on a mat. Given the Labor Day weekend, many spa members were elsewhere. A group of vacationing hotel guests filed in for Saturday morning exercise classes.

We were greeted by a smiling Ann Hodges, a venerated yoga instructor at the spa. Ann was playing fill-in for power flow yoga and gentle stretch classes offered by peers whose areas of expertise carried their own personal style.

Yoga is a second career to Ann, a former "triple threat" who appeared on Broadway and featured in national tours and TV. An early adopter, Ann studied under Swami Satchidananda and lived in an ashram while gaining teaching certification.

Despite Ann's credentials and skill, the upcoming power flow class represented a different form from Ann's brand of yoga. Typical "substitute" questions arose and a quizzical atmosphere was fueled by uncertain guests and Ann's desire to meet student expectations.

When power yoga class concluded and stretch class was ready to begin, I observed as similar questions arose regarding the next "substitute" class.

"Just teach what comes natural," I whispered to Ann from my front row mat. "Everyone here is new and they have no frame of reference for what's typical."

Ann smiled. Within moments, she calmed the gym's animated atmosphere into a restful silence. Her soft music, perfectly intoned verbal commands and yoga-infused stretches created a uniquely exhilarating class. The basic elements of a traditional stretch were present, but the delivery and style were all Ann's. The half hour class whizzed by, culminating with a few minutes of relaxation.

As class ended and participants began rolling up their mats, a voice remarked. "This was awesome. It felt like a magic carpet ride."

And so it was.

Ann stepped in as a substitute instructor but dared to shine as herself. Instead of attempting to mimic fine instructors of slightly different disciplines, she incorporated her own talents and skills. The result was a unique and enjoyable exercise experience for instructor and participants alike.

Playing substitute can be a daunting proposition. It's especially challenging when we're asked to fill in for those who shine brightly, perform brilliantly or are endeared and respected by others.

I experienced the panic myself as a fledgling sales rep in the then explosive telecom industry of the 1980s. After working for only a few months, our sales manager called me into his office to advise me I'd be taking his place.

"What? Pick someone else to lead the team," I pleaded. "I'm still trying to make quota!"

The fear of stepping into leadership in an office where nearly every sales rep but me wanted a management job was chilling. It was compounded by the big shoes I would need to fill. In the case of outgoing manager Mike McNamara, those shoes were firmly grounded wing-tips.

Mike's 250-pound physical presence dwarfed my rail-thin frame. And at 35, his charismatic persona stood in contrast to my youthful vulnerability. How could I take the place of this highly evolved business figure we all liked and respected?

Mike's leadership was firm but wise. For starters, he shot down my every appeal for him to choose another candidate. He calmly informed me that I'd either accept the promotion or be fired from my present job. Next, he spent a few hours sharing his management tips and philosophy, most of which involved demonstrating respect and appreciation for fellow employees.

Each of Mike's points resonated with my own belief about leadership but did not address my present fear: How could I ever successfully take this man's place?

Mike appeared to conclude his mentoring session. Getting up from his desk, he led me toward the door of his glass-enclosed office. Before I exited, he looked me in the eye and smiled.

"Maura, don't try to replicate me. Always remember to be yourself."

While lots of learning and plenty of work lay before me, Mike's final words were all I really needed. They removed a heavy burden, setting me free to remain true to myself while keeping in mind the skills he'd imparted.

Mike moved to Chicago as director of national sales and his career ultimately advanced beyond our corporation. I was sorry we'd lost touch. I would have loved sharing with him how the frightened young sales rep profited from his early encouragement.

Two years later, his simple advice helped me to rise to branch manager of the year and recipient of the corporation's Chairman's Award. In my wake, was a happy and prosperous team: a sales manager, a major-accounts manager and five sales pros, all of whom were accompanied by their significant others aboard a seven-day Caribbean cruise. Together we celebrated our individual and collective success.

Mike's advice would eventually lead me to my current role. As an author, blogger and public speaker, it's my pleasure and passion to encourage and inspire others to follow that same happy adage:

"Just be yourself."

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