Leadership expert and author Pete Hamill likes to compare leaders to top athletes. Both undergo rigorous training in order to become the best in their fields. Both want to push the boundaries of their profession and become the best.
Unlike in the sports world, however, where athletes typically become better and better at their game, the field of leadership rarely sees performance-boosting results from its training. Things just stay kind of…flat. Why? Because leadership training programs are slow to embrace new research in the field, and training programs simply present models and frameworks. There’s no practice, Hamill argues, like the experience athletes have—no real-world embodiment of leadership principles. So when new leaders return to the field, they find themselves lost in the inevitable chaos of organizational life.
How does it work?
The first step in embodied leadership sounds deceptively simple: Pay attention to the body. People are drawn to leaders who have presence and competency, much like pack animals know who the leader is by the way he carries himself. This includes body language and gestures but also goes deeper: being present, staying calm under pressure, inspiring trust and awe in those around you.
The principle behind embodied leadership is that the mind and body are in constant communication—so much so that they can be considered one linked tool. Most leaders in North America lead with their “head;” but Hamill argues that by bringing together “language, action, feeling and meaning,” leaders have the potential to create deep connections with those they manage.
What does the research say about embodied leadership?
The research in this field is still developing, but early findings are promising.
For example, a 2010 study by Carney, et al found that exhibiting high-power nonverbal gestures (such as open, expansive postures) resulted in higher testosterone, lower cortisol, and a greater feeling of power and tolerance for risk—in both male and female leaders. The implications for this are huge: simply by becoming aware of the body and consciously adjusting to a pose that exhibits power, leaders are able to manipulate subtle physical changes in their neurochemistry that leads to better management of organizational hurdles.
Another study reported that according to current neuroscience, simply presenting frameworks and models doesn’t actually impact the brains of leaders, and neither does self-awareness on its own. Incorporating the body into leadership, however, does have an impact.
How can you develop your embodied leadership potential?
Hamill offers a few suggestions in his book, Embodied Leadership: The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership. Here are a few:
Practice centering yourself. This means taking the time to check in with the body, become aware of where you hold tension, and learn to release it gently. Becoming more comfortable in your own skin is the first step to embodying leadership for others.
Create your own leadership declaration. This is a statement that declares what you want to achieve through your leadership. You should spend some time developing a clear picture of your goals, and then once you have it, you can repeat your declaration each time you pause to center yourself.
Take a stand. Each time an opportunity arises to practice taking a stand, or saying “no,” take it. If you practice this in small, lower-consequence situations, you’ll develop the confidence to assert yourself in high-stakes situations as well. A leader who knows what he or she wants and is not afraid to say it is one who garners the respect of others.
Leadership is not something you do, it must fundamentally be who you are. By learning to connect the mind with the body, and to lead with purpose, you can, according to Hamill, “lead at a deeper, more fundamental level, working through the body to deeper levels of self-awareness, developing the capacity to be the leader you want to be, and achieving what you are committed to achieving.”