Leadership and The Body

Mark Walsh

Mark Walsh

Mark Walsh


A discussion of leadership must include the body to be integral – we are embodied creatures and this is a core part of our being. Traditional theories of leadership have, however, ignored embodiment, coming from what is a hyper-rational cognitively biased world-view this is not, perhaps, surprising. Encouragingly though, the topic of embodiment has been finding its way back into both organisations and leadership colleges in the UK, as well as becoming the subject of academic research in areas such as “embodied cognition”. On a personal note, I’ve been running a business working with embodied and integral perspectives on leadership, stress management, and communication training for the last four years, and working with embodiment in areas of conflict to promote peace and resilience. This paper is a practical introduction to the relationship between the body and leadership, how this relates to AQAL, and includes case studies from two organisations.

Some Basics of How Leadership is Embodied

Rather than wade into the swamps of theory that are notorious in the world of integral discourse, I would like to offer a brief overview of the body in relation to leadership and point people to resources. It’s worth saying upfront that when I talk about leadership, I mean this in the widest possible sense of leading one’s life and making choices, not just in a grand “heroic” model or just within a corporate context.

An embodied line of development?

When discussing the body and leadership, I am primarily interested in embodiment or somatics – the subjective experience of the body, not the body just as an “it” but as experienced through and as an aspect of “I”, and as an element of “we”. States and embodiment will be mentioned shortly and I also note that levels of development and types are embodied. Embodiment is relevant to all aspects of an integral model of leadership: whatever we do, we do it with a body!

We can understand embodiment in terms of a line of intelligence akin to emotional or spiritual intelligence, and it should not just be limited to athletic intelligence. Howard Gardner refers to “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” as one of eight intelligences. The simple framework below, is adapted from Daniel Goleman of EI (Emotional Intelligence) fame, and shows the range of areas within an embodied or somatic intelligence and is fleshed out in the second 2×2 diagram (neither model to be confused with Wilber’s classic quadrants). An example from each area is then given along with a mention of “shadow” to complete our whirlwind embodied AQAL leadership tour.

Figure: Embodiment

Embodied Self-Awareness (Self)

  • Overall body awareness
  • Embodied state awareness
  • Health awareness
  • Postural and breath awareness
  • Mood and emotion awareness
  • Sleep/rest/activity cycle awareness
  • Sexual awareness
  • Movement (quality, flexibility, strength, speed, grace) awareness
  • Masculine/feminine polarity awareness
  • Awareness of personal and transpersonal intuition (through felt sense (e.g. focusing)
Embodied Social Awareness (Others)

  • Social body awareness (awareness of others – individuals and group moods)
  • Social attentional awareness (yes, that hottie/criminal is looking at you)
  • Somatic assessment (evaluating others by looking at their form)
  • Group mood awareness (used for example by orators and performers)
  • Felt intuitive sense of others (via unconscious mirroring)
  • Empathy (via mirror neurones)
  • Sexual awareness


Embodied Self-Management (Changing Self)

  • Postural adjustment (the right posture for…)
  • Embodied state management
  • Movement itself (flexibility, strength, speed, grace)
  • Breath control (e.g. diaphragmatic “belly” breathing)
  • Mood (embodied disposition) management
  • Sleep/rest/activity cycle management (Excitation, centring, relaxing, enlivening, grounding, etc)
  • Masculine/feminine polarity balancing and shifting, e.g. Deida work, 16 ways (Uzuzu) practice
  • Sexual management
  • Accessing and managing personal and transpersonal intuition
Embodied Social Connection and Influence (Changing Others)

  • Nonverbal mimicking, leading, and rapport building
  • Resonance and conscious somatic counter transference
  • Interruption of unconscious mirroring (e.g. during vicious cycles in a conflict)
  • Establishing empathic and emotional connection
  • Sexual impact and influence
  • Leadership and emotional impact (charisma, presence, gravitas)
  • Trust building (especially sincerity)
  • Protective use of force
  • Body-mind medicine and healing
  • Direct somatic interventions, e.g. postural alignment with a coaching client


Awareness and Disposition

I view self-awareness as the basis of effective leadership and working through the body is an excellent way to build such self-awareness. A simple way of doing this is to lead a group though a range of embodied distinctions (say four archetypes) and give participants the opportunity to feel those that are familiar and those that are not. One particularly important question is: what is the physical disposition that a leader possesses? Embodied dispositions are usually “invisible” to people as we habituate to our bodies, but they determine how we think, what actions we take, and what relationships we can build. Not small things! The ability to recognise these dispositions in other people is also useful for leaders as a means of reading “character”. I recently had fun guessing the personalities of strangers walking on Brighton’s seafront using these “somatic assessments” and providing such feedback forms; a sometimes intense but always useful part of many leadership courses.

There are various models of disposition such as this four elements model. This video says more on the subject.


People’s physical states can easily undermine what their level of development on any given line would otherwise enable them to do. This is an easily missed but important point, especially in the stress-filled, economic-meltdown modern workplace. In my experience, almost no one at work is operating regularly from his or her “best self”. Because of this, the ability to manage one’s state is a vital leadership skill and often more useful to people than trying to shift stages (in my experience this is only possible on long-term development courses if already emerging). Managing state though simple bodily interventions involving posture, attention, and breathing has been loosely labelled “centering”. I have been exploring centering techniques with some rigour and with a wide variety of groups. Learning to centre is a quick “win” that regularly gets assessed as the most useful skill on brief embodied courses.

There’s a video on centering here and Paul Linden’s e-books on the subject are well worth a look.

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Much of emotional intelligence, another essential leadership skill, is also based on body awareness, as this is where emotions are experienced and displayed. Empathy, too, is more of a felt resonance than a cognitive understanding. I have come to regard empathy as perhaps a leader’s single most important attribute.

Dan Siegel’s TED talks and the book A General Theory of Love speak eloquently about empathy, limbic alignment, and attachment.

Impact and Influence

If a leader wants to have an impact on people, what they say is not the only thing to consider. When it comes to what Goleman calls “resonant leadership”, the body matters. Leadership is an influencing and trust building activity and this requires what is sometimes called “presence” or “charisma”. In the past, this concept was not well understood and considered an almost magic quality. Models of leadership embodiment are dispelling this myth. While charismatic leadership has been shown to have its dangers, it also has its uses; it is certainly useful for a leader to be able to communicate effectively with their whole being.

Models such as Dr. Richard Strozzi Heckler’s length, width, and depth model map “presence” and take it from magic to operational “hows”.

Shadow Work and Values

Leadership effectiveness can be undermined by the aspects of a leader’s personality that he or she represses, denies, and hides. The body is the repository for the unconscious and there are various embodied techniques to access and work with this material. Other shadow technologies can also be used; however, in my experience, working with the body gets to the heart of things quickly, which organisations value, and changes tend to “stick”. This is true of all embodied work due to its highly experiential personal nature. Teaching one to fish is one thing, helping them transform into a dolphin is quite another! Similarly, working with values and what people and teams really care about, as felt through the body, is meaningful at a level of depth that an inauthentic mission statement displayed in a frame on the office wall cannot match.

Those interested in embodied shadow work may be interested in Focusing or some of the body orientated psychotherapy schools such as Chiron (

Leadership Training Case Studies

Here are two personal accounts of working with two different clients. Other clients that I have had the pleasure of doing embodied work with include: small local charities and international NGOs, global banks and financial services companies, airlines, PR firms, property agents, partygoers at Buddhist festivals, and the military of Sierra Leone.

1. Telecoms Bright-Stars

I’m in my second year of leading a management development program for the “best and brightest” future leaders of a multi-national telecoms company. The participants are in their early twenties and on a fast-track management development program. They are keen, cognitively very able (a pass on an IQ test, fluency in several languages, and significant academic achievement is required to join the program), and highly motivated, displaying some classic “Orange meme” values and an “achievist” mindset (to use two developmental models). The reason I’m given this group to work with is that the organisation’s HR leadership (which has what could be called “emergent Green” tendencies in the Spiral Dynamics model) has found that selecting high potential managers on the basis of the cognitive line of development alone does not ensure workplace success. This is a classic opening for integral and embodied work in organisations and I explicitly use the integral model with this group. I work with emotional and embodied intelligence over a six-month period (eight to nine days of contact and teleconferences, readings, and practices as homework), working on a transformational level. Participants report the course as “useful, challenging, different, and intense.” In most cases, participants receive feedback from peers and managers that they change significantly over the duration of the course.

As in many of the business environments in which I teach, participants are often at first estranged from their bodies and view them simply as “brain-taxis”, to use a colleague’s phrase. Fear around emotions and the body is also common due to negative or limited associations – e.g. emotions as weak, body as only sexual. When working with the body in this and other business leadership contexts, it is essential to achieve the buy-in of participants and to use language appropriate to their type and level if one is to allay concerns. In all but the most staunch traditionalist businesses, I have found people are happy to engage in experiential embodied exercises as long as they can see that it connects to what they care about – career achievement in this example. The beauty of experiential embodied learning is that no belief is required and participants can “prove it” for themselves, which tends to fit the values found in their business. In terms of the language I use, I start with things people already know – e.g. “yes, like body language, but deeper and longer-term; it’s about who you are – body being, if you will” – and use analogies people can relate to – “think of the body as your operating system”.

I find my work with the telecoms bright stars a real pleasure and have a sense of contributing to both the long-term success of the company and the development of values within it. On a wider note, given the growing power of global companies, and the embodied-emotional dissociation usually found within them – often leading to the kind of concerns currently being demonstrated against by the Occupy movement – I believe embodiment and values-led work within corporations is essential. If companies don’t pay attention to feelings and emotions, they not only damage their productivity by burning out staff, but also damage us all.

2. University Challenge

I have also worked extensively with the academics and support staff of a left-leaning University for the past three years, delivering many half-day open trainings, facilitating events, and providing longer-term management development courses. In terms of value-sets, work culture, and organisational procedures, they are quite different from many of my business clients. In such organisations, embodied training is sometimes very easily received because of the postmodern/pluralist values that are present. At other times, these business clients resisted more strongly due to the academic emphasis on theories and cognition. This client highlights a key difference between embodied learning and the majority of education as it is generally carried out – the importance of practice. I stress recurrent practice to develop and embed a way of being a leader rather than one-shot “learning about” cognitive acquisition. This is at the heart of embodied approaches to leadership.

What has been successful with the university is the use of embodied techniques to explore values-led approaches and first-person knowing. With the higher level of development, in terms of values present within this organisation, the acceptance of the concept and practices associated with embodiment come more easily in many cases than in some business contexts. Perhaps ironically, however, my experience of holding developmental conversations has been more challenging than in other environments. Within this highly complex, culturally diverse, and rapidly changing organisation, the importance of embodied practices for developing sensitivity and resilience has also been shown. I use a different vocabulary to explain the concepts and practices I teach in business, and discuss spiritually as well as meaning and purpose.


So what are some conclusions I’ve drawn from exploring both the literature and practice of embodiment and leadership? Here are a few bullet-points:

  • The body matters
  • Leadership is greatly enhanced by embodiment
  • Embodied approaches to leadership development go deep quickly and stick
  • Core leadership skills such as self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and intuition are embodied, and cannot be addressed purely cognitively
  • It is both possible and desirable to work in an embodied manner with mainstream organisational leaders
  • Practice counts

About the Author

Mark Walsh leads integral business training providers Integration Training – based in Brighton, London, and Birmingham UK. Specialising in working with emotions, the body, and spirituality at work, they help organisations get more done without going insane (time and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training), and help leaders embody impact, influence and presence (leadership training). In his spare time Mark dances, meditates, practices MMA, and plays with his niece. His life ambition is to make it normal to be a human being at work.





  1. Lillas Hatala on March 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Mark:
    I really like your article here.. thank you for your perspective. I too think and feel that developing authentic leadership presence really is in the embodiment. As a part time yoga teacher , and full time Integrative Leadership facilitator and Coach , I have been so fascinated with how the yoga path ( an integral practice) guides and informs the leadership path . Currently I am facilitating some workshops on the yoga of leadership – I have two upcoming…. in the US and here in Canada… are inspiring me to consider writing about this in the near future.

    in appreciation for you,

  2. StepVheN on March 23, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    This is HUGELY complex not unlike what is going on in movements like Truth Strike but this seems to be a little more “out there” and theoretical. Is all this extra theory really needed?