In a culture where the body is largely viewed as just something that is needed to carry the brain around, the title 'leadership and the body' probably sounds a bit strange. You may use your body on the football pitch, or dancing, or going for a walk, but what has it got to do with leadership?
Well, read on!
'Somatic awareness is how we become centred, present and capable of seeing and responding to opportunities for behavioural choice' Doug Silsbee, coach and author of Presence-based Coaching
A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop on Leadership Embodiment. It was run by Michele Seymour (www.balancematters.com) who has been coaching leaders for many years in the art of engaging their bodies in leadership. This may sound a little odd, conjuring up pictures of chief executives stripping off their suits to bare all in board meetings. Certainly that would have quite an impact but what Michele teaches is something more internal and subtle, but nevertheless very powerful.
To start understanding what this means, think of politicians that we see on the BBC's Question Time, for example. Or those we see speaking in the House of Commons. There are the ones who are calm, articulate and command authority. They use few words with great impact. And there are the ones who talk a lot, gesticulate a lot, defend themselves, get into arguments, stutter and splutter when they're interrupted. It doesn't really matter what these people are saying, it is their demeanor that speaks loudest.
I recently watched the film Invictus with a group of colleagues. It's about the days following Nelson Mandela's release, when he was dealing with an excited but revenge-fuelled black community, and a frightened white community. Admittedly we were watching Morgan Freeman, not the man himself, but he was so good that one of my colleagues marveled at how they had managed to get Nelson Mandela to play himself! Even if you haven't seen Nelson Mandela recently, you will certainly recall his stature. Completely erect, straight, calm, quiet and authoritative, he always commanded respect. So what is it that makes the difference between the striving over-activity of some politicians, and the calm authority of Nelson Mandela? Michele Seymour would argue that it is alignment.
Whatever position you hold at work, it is an unspoken rule in most workplaces that you should leave your feelings at home. We don't do that, of course, because we can't, but what we do is pretend that we're not having feelings, and pretend that other people are not having feelings. But they are there all the time, and they are crucial. Without them we don't know what is important to us, we don't know when we are being treated well or badly, or when others are. We use our feelings to make decisions all the time - when we don't have feelings, or we feel ambivalent, we find it very hard to make decisions. When somebody says, 'I just don't know what to do,' that isn't because they can't work out the pros and cons in their brain, it's because their body is not giving them clear direction.
So feelings are crucial at work, but they can also cause problems. Freud talked about our egos, and by that he meant the structure that we built around ourselves from a young age in order to be approved of. It's the part of us that works hard, tries to impress, endeavours to be perfect, smiles at people even when we don't feel like it. We do those things to keep safe. Our ego has served most of us well - we've got on in our careers, have friends, run our lives, are generally accepted by the people around us. It is inherently fragile, however, because it isn't who we really are. When our ego is damaged we experience unpleasant feelings - hurt, anger and fear being the most common. Those feelings drive us quickly to do something to restore the status quo. We may argue, raise our voices, defend ourselves, give commands; we may even flee. Needless to say, these activities are not the stuff of authoritative leadership.
It is in these circumstances that attention to our bodies can pay particular dividends, first of all to become aware of what is actually going on in it, and then to act to bring the different parts of the body into alignment. An aligned body is calm, centred and powerful.
So what does alignment mean exactly? Well in simple terms it is getting our bodies into the position that nature meant for us. One that is straight, rather than slouched, relaxed rather than tense, and where our head, spine and legs are all in a straight line. Eastern traditions talk about the body having three centres:
- the belly centre, just below the naval, which is our centre of gravity
- the heart centre, in the chest, which is where we experience feelings of love and compassion
- the head centre, in the brain, which is where we reason and create.
When all these are aligned we feel at one with ourselves, our thoughts and feelings and energy are all working together. Have a look at Obama in this clip to see what this looks like.
In this place we feel solid and immovable and secure. The security comes from a place inside us, not from the approval of other people. As a result we can take time, when things go wrong, to decide on our course of action, and we can do it calmly. This is what makes a good leader.
Ideally do this with another person.
1. In a standing position, think of something that makes you feel anxious (or angry, or upset). It may be a situation you have been in recently, or something that concerns you now.
2. Notice the effect of this feeling on your body. What happens in your face, your throat, your shoulders, your chest, your stomach? Is there any tension in your muscles? How do your legs feel?
3. If you are working with someone, without actively bracing yourself, ask them to give you a little push from behind. Notice what happens.
4. Now place your feet side by side, a hip's width apart. Feel the ground under your feet. Then gently straighten your body from foot to crown, your feet solid on the ground, your head moving upwards, as if a string were attached to the back of your head and was gently pulling you upwards. Become aware that your belly, your chest and your head are in alignment.
Then bring your attention to your breathing - imagine that your in-breath is starting from the base of your spine and is travelling up your back to the top of your head, and that your out-breath flows down the front of your body. Do this for a few moments.
Now allow your jaw and your shoulders to relax, just a little.
And then, think of the quality that you need for your situation - maybe strength, confidence, calmness, and imagine that you had just a little bit more of that quality.
How do you feel? What does the situation look like now?
Ask your friend to give you another push - what is different this time?
The next time something rattles you, try it!
Have a centred week....