• The Yogi Leader

Awakin features The Yogi Leader



Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. We had the privilege of hosting an Awakin Call with Leila Naderi. Dr. Leila Naderi is an entrepreneur, educator, researcher and consultant focused on leadership development. She is founder of the Global Leadership Academy, a volunteer-run organization that provides leadership training seminars to develop conscious leaders who act beyond profit. She also founded Yoga for Leadership, a program that bridges yoga and mindfulness to enhance holistic well-being and maximize individual, team, and organizational performance. Dr. Naderi co-authored The Yogi Leader: Discovering the Seven Elements of Leading with Mind, Body, & Heart. As an advanced Hatha/Sivananda yoga instructor, she (along with Dr. John Franey, her co-author) realized, while working on a doctoral dissertation in leadership, that the chakras of yoga line up with various leadership approaches. They developed “The Seven Elements of Leadership,” each of which is a skill that people need in order to lead effectively with mind, body, and heart, and that align perfectly with a chakra of yoga practice.Below are some of the specific nuggets from the call: Overall highlights. What really stood out was her emphasis on consistency of daily practice, the notion that we get better every day and the need to just be better than what we were yesterday (rather than to be better than anyone else), and to begin serving and initiating action with whatever we have (and not waiting for more money or power).

  • "There is no competition in yoga. It’s about becoming better than what you used to be. It’s just about doing it, not about doing it better than anyone else. I saw it as helping me not as a workout or exercise, but as helping me to be centered.”

  • When in the management world, “I realized I’m a different person on the days I do yoga and the days I don’t do yoga.” The practice helped her to “moderate feelings we usually have in the business world, which is a world of achievement and numbers” – it helped her to “feel the immeasurable things in the business world."

  • Yoga helps people be better leaders: “Managers do the things right; leaders do the right things.”

  • Research shows that the key point is the frequency of yoga practice, not the length or the intensity – the frequency helps to develop authentic leadership qualities. “You don’t do all your teeth brushing for one hour just once a week – you spread it out a few minutes, a few times every day.” You don’t just shower for a long time once per month; you do it in smaller chunks frequently.

  • “What can I do now, without waiting until I’m the most powerful and richest person in the world? With whatever I have, I can just start contributing. … I don’t have to wait til I have financial resources. We don’t require money first. Starting something first requires an open heart to take first step and just do it. Willingness to begin with the first step, small actions.”

  • “People doing small things with a big heart is where real change happens…We become better gradually.”

  • “Let’s not worry about outcome when we start something – we’re not in competition. Let’s become better than what we used to be. Let’s do something small for myself, family or community to be a little better than yesterday.”

  • “If you want to fight with darkness, you just need a tiny hole for light. When light comes, the darkness goes away. Don’t try to fix or fight with darkness – to make the world brighter, light a candle, then second candle."

And here are the longer, more contextual nuggets from the call below.


Strong foundation of family.Leila was born and raised in Tehran in a large family. She considers it one of her life’s great blessings to have 5 siblings, all of whom remain very close to her and one another. Her father passed away when she was 12 years old; siblings became closer as a result of that situation. “All were very adventurous,” and live in different parts of world (Sweden, San Francisco, Dallas, Leila in San Diego). “Foundation of family is still there – we are connected, really care about each other.” She knows she has people when challenging times come, regardless of how often they meet. “I know I have people that really care about me.” She notes that different family members have different roles in initiating connection and providing support, but that it all works. She “believed in something – higher consciousness, whatever you call it. My guiding principle was to believe in something bigger than people around me or money or education or position.” She grew up with Rumi and Hafiz and the influences of Persian poetry.


River of life.Leila moved to the US 10 years ago, partly because she had family members here, also because she “wanted to explore the world and get to know people from different cultures/traditions, and to expand the borders from which I was born.” There was a “continuing river of life taking me from one spot to the other and meeting amazing people.”


From engineering to management.Leila’s undergrad degree was in engineering in 1999, but her professional experience was then more in business and management. She became “more interested in dealing with people rather than technology – it satisfies me more and gives me meaning. It’s important that we find that alignment. I found that alignment in leadership practices – focusing on people, empowering people, inspiring people."


Transformational experience of yoga teacher training.

  • Trying not to lose herself in the business world. She had an “amazing experience” in 2006, when she quite her job as a manager and went for yoga teacher training in India. She felt that going from engineering to business and management “takes you to different ways.” “At a young age I realized I wanted to equip myself and learn capabilities and some way of living that helps me when I’m lost in the business world – that I’m still true to myself.”

  • There is no competition in yoga. She had some familiarity with yoga in Iran, though she says “yoga came to my life accidentally.” Leila went to a standard gym in Iran, and her first yoga instructor was fantastic – was into the mind-body connection, not just the workout. She learned to integrate movement with breathing, “so it was a different level of experiencing yourself and your existence.” “It was the right thing for me to do. The mindful aspect allowed me to connect to a deeper side of me – I became interested in it. There is no competition in yoga. It’s about becoming better than what you used to be. It’s just about doing it, not about doing it better than anyone else. I saw it as helping me not as a workout or exercise, but as helping me to be centered.”

  • Finding grounding in yoga. Leila was on a successful path in business; she was young “and was losing myself in business world.” She wanted to go deeper into her yoga and do a yoga teacher training – not to become a yoga teacher – but “I wanted to find something to help me with business and leadership and myself in that.” She went to India in 2006 for a one-month program, finding it to be a “transformational experience,” and stayed 2 more months to practice more. It became foundational for her – “I found something that was for me, and I could always refer to it as a practice to find myself centered and grounded and rooted. Such a [grounding] practice might be something else for someone else.” Each person needs to find grounding in some activity – “finding that thing that helps you go within and to discover the integration of mind and body – it comes together.”

  • Feeling the immeasurable, even off the mat in the business world. The experience changed her, and when she came back, she changed jobs. “The practice of yoga and meditation on a regular basis helped me” – she would do meditation before business meetings on occasion, and be aware of her breath – “it changed many things for me, including the way I was doing business even.” She began to bring yoga “off the mat,” not just on the mat. “I realized I’m a different person on the days I do yoga and the days I don’t do yoga.” The practice helped her to “moderate feelings we usually have in the business world, which is a world of achievement and numbers” – it helped her to “feel the immeasurable things in the business world."

From management to leadership, and the relevance of yoga.After re-immersing herself into management, Leila finished her MBA in 2014. She came to see the difference between management and leadership: “Managers do the things right; leaders do the right things.” She started seeing the need for more leaders, and for a “paradigm shift in how we’re doing business in the world.” She started seeing how critical yoga philosophy and practice could be for this. “We are human beings bringing our mind, body and emotions to work,” and lots of research shows that our “capability for being present is connected to our happiness.” It wasn’t long before Leila starting seeing that “what we discuss in leadership is relevant through yoga. We can use yoga to maximize leadership skills.” She found there wasn’t much research around that, so later went back to continue her education to get a Ph.D. in leadership. “It was something in alignment with what I really wanted – I just felt something about it.”


Leadership lessons of yoga.

  • “It’s not about position or rank; it’s about how we want to contribute to the world.” “We are all leaders and followers in different areas of our life (parents are leaders at home).

  • “Daily meditation practice (even just 5-15 minutes in the morning) helps me connect to what’s true.”

  • “Those who practice yoga have more self-awareness, which is a key leadership skill.”

  • Chakras refer to the “subtle body and energy body”. Subtle body is a part of our existence that we can’t see or touch; it’s our energy body. There are 7 points on our bodies that are vortexes of energy; these are the chakras, which are main energy centers in alignment of spine – from base of spine to crown of head. “If chakras are blocked, we feel we have physical, mental or emotional imbalance. If they are open, then we are better physically, emotionally and mentally.” Each chakra has different emotions and physical capabilities. Leila saw synergy between the elements of leadership that emerged from each of the 7 chakras – and found that “there are 7 capabilities and talents that people need to develop to become effective and credible leaders and to lead with mind, body and heart.”

Just do it: the importance of daily practice.

  • Frequency and consistency over length or intensity. Just keeping it 5-10 minutes, or 15 minutes, per day is fine – the continuity is what’s critical, as opposed to intensity. Research shows that the key point is the frequency of yoga practice, not the length or the intensity – the frequency helps to develop authentic leadership qualities. “You don’t do all your teeth brushing for one hour just once a week – you spread it out a few minutes, a few times every day.” You don’t just shower for a long time once per month; you do it in smaller chunks frequently.

  • Just serve – start with what we already have. “What can I do now, without waiting until I’m the most powerful and richest person in the world? With whatever I have, I can just start contributing. … I don’t have to wait til I have financial resources. We don’t require money first. Starting something first requires an open heart to take first step and just do it. Willingness to begin with the first step, small actions.”

  • Doing small things with a big heart. “People doing small things with a big heart is where real change happens…We become better gradually.”

  • We become a little bit better each day. “Goal is not to run faster every time – we just do it mindfully and consciously. But speed almost automatically increases. I learned advanced poses in yoga because I just did them 1000 times – every time it led to another step. We become a little bit better.” “Let’s not worry about outcome when we start something – we’re not in competition. Let’s become better than what we used to be. Let’s do something small for myself, family or community to be a little better than yesterday.”

  • Her inspiration from ServiceSpace. “ServiceSpace is breaking all the rules about business. This became my inspiration – what can I do more? I’m passionate about leadership. I started Global Leadership Academy with group of volunteers.” “For projects that became meaningful to me – people became involved and helped me. This is how we come together, when we start something.”

Yoga’s lessons about shadow and darkness.“If you want to fight with darkness, you just need a tiny hole for light. When light comes, the darkness goes away. Don’t try to fix or fight with darkness – to make the world brighter, light a candle, then second candle."


Pygmalion effect.A leader’s state of mind is contagious, and through his/her nonverbal communication, team members can sense it. “Yoga helps us lead with mind, body and heart. Happy leaders impact their teams. The power of leaders is such that they can have negative or positive impact.”


Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

More info: https://www.awakin.org/calls/468/leila-naderi/blog


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