05/31 – Leadership: Why the Body Matters

Jon Love

Jon Love

Jon Love

Leadership lives in the body. What I will attempt to lay out in this short piece is the notion that our access to producing the phenomenon recognized as “leadership” is first and foremost an embodied “way of being” that can be developed with practice.

So let’s start with a common understanding of what we mean when we say “leadership.” My definition starts with the idea that there are “leadership moments” in which one person’s words and/or actions are able to move a team, group, community or society toward a shared desired future. Leadership is a collective phenomenon that happens when the team, group, community or society acknowledges this leadership moment. Only the collective has the authority to declare someone a leader.

In this way of looking at it, leadership can be provided by anyone in the group. It is independent of rank or position. If, over a period of some time, you are recognized consistently for producing leadership moments, you acquire a reputation for leadership; you become known as a Leader. As trust in your leadership increases, the more the people around you are looking to you for leadership moments, your opportunity for even more leadership increases.

Assuming that you aspire to leadership, you might ask, “What are the capacities and competencies that allow you to produce leadership moments?”

Basically, you have to prepare your self for those occasions when the opportunities for leadership moments arise. There are some opportunities for leadership that come at times when you have the time to reflect and make conscious choices. You can actually respond to the situation rather than react.

More often, however, leadership is called for in times of chaos, crisis and uncertainty. The group does not know which way to go, or is stopped by fear from going in the direction they know they should. So the one who leads at that moment, by definition, is responding to the situation differently than everyone else.

The problem is that in stressful situations we human beings are designed to react rather than respond. Using the terminology provided by Daniel Kahneman, it is the “fast” system in the body/brain that is activated, not the “slow” one that allows conscious choices to be made. Great for jumping away from a snake on the path, but not so good for responding to a critical comment from your boss.

Each of us has our own “conditioned tendencies” that are wired into our fast reactive system, which continue to be reinforced each time they are activated simply because whether we “like” the outcome or not we did survive the situation. That’s all the reactive system in us cares about. We survived.

To prepare for these leadership opportunities you have to actually build a different set of conditioned tendencies into your fast body/brain system. When the shit hits the fan no amount of thoughtful insight will make the difference between spontaneous anger and the cool sidestep or disarming gratitude.

What you need to do is train your body to react by pausing. And in that pause return your self to “center.”

The body/brain system treats the social moments of disruption (being told the part you were counting on is not going to be delivered, or your client tells you the quality sucks) exactly as if it were a physical event. Just like being knocked over by a bully, you are “off center.”

When you are off center you are literally falling in a direction that you did not choose. You are falling toward anger, fear, reprisal, attack, cowering or some other unchosen triggered reaction. Returning to center restores choice, and opens up an infinite number of next moves. Every trained martial artist, athlete and performance artist knows that when they are centered they can choose their next move, but when they are not centered they have no choice but to continue the fall until they find a way to stop and return to center. The key element is the speed with which you do this.

In social situations of being knocked off center we mostly do not notice when it happens. We are operating in an automatic conditioned tendency which actually shuts down self-awareness. You may have heard this referred to as the “Panic Zone.”

Now for the tip of how to escape the trap, get back to center and make a move that helps the group you are a member of…

First, train your body (and self) to recognize “center.” Actually, practice taking a deep breath and putting your attention on the physical center of your body. Rock back and forth and side to side slightly to feel the difference between being fully centered and not. Do this a lot! At least 3 times a day.

Next, notice throughout your day when you are off center. Many times you will notice that you are off center and have been for hours, triggered by an event, a remark, a new bit of information, and that you have been on automatic ever since. “Ah hah,” you say. “I’m off center!” And simply take that deep breath, move your attention to the center of your body and look again at what your possible responses to that situation could be.

The faster you are able to come back to center, the more prepared you are for that crisis moment that calls for leadership. You build into your body a tendency to choose rather than react.

There is an added bonus that I want to mention here.

We humans have learned to trust people who are centered. We feel the difference. Leaders inspire trust by the way they are being. Not just their ideas or visions. And that trust is an embodied response to the embodied being of the one “leading.”

So, perfecting that moment of pause and returning to center gives you choice, and allows others to trust you more at the same time!

About The Author

Jon Love is an Organizational Transformation Specialist and Leadership Coach, committed to building workplace cultures that allow us bring our whole selves to work. He learned the principles of Embodied Leadership at the Institute for Embodied Leadership and by collaborating with Sage Alliance Partners. His central commitment to a just, sustainable and thriving world is expressed in his work with the Pachamama Alliance and Project Drawdown. He and his partner, Satya Robinson, offer services through JLS Global, and he can be reached on LinkedIn.

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