Leadership Is a Lived Story: A Call for Radical Embodiment and Soul Resilience in Transformational Leadership Development

Carol Burbank

Carol Burbank

Carol Burbank

Carol Burbank

Abstract: The most direct way of developing the necessary flexibility and health for transformational leadership is through radically embodied presence. This kind of embodiment involves a fundamental reintegration of body, mind and spirit, involves developing evolutionary strengths that allow individual leaders to fully access their inner resources while connecting in the moment-to-moment, negotiated process of sustainable transformation.

For something that seems to be a universal quest, good leadership is a culturally specific puzzle, with subcultural variations that are often paradoxical, even within a single community. As we move awkwardly through 21st century systemic global interconnectedness, our leaders must find necessary cross-cultural solutions to emerging global crises, while being attentive to local structures. This is difficult, especially in Western culture, where our norms are stubbornly hyperindividuated, disembodied and generally biased against intuitive innovation. In order to find our footing in the constant shifts and challenging stuckness of our age, we do what humans have always done – make up comforting stories to explain who we are, and why. Good leaders must become weavers of this narrative cacophony; great leaders must find a way to transform it into new music.

It is a difficult and exhausting task. All of these stories form a complex web of identities, values, narratives, structures and performances, with threads connecting to the larger culture with equal complexity. Some groups have an adversarial relationship with the leaders/followers, organizations and narratives of the dominant culture, while others connect more organically to become a willing subgroup in a larger structure. How do we understand this vibrant and seductive web of story and self, so we can track the effectiveness of leadership, and foster a genuinely transformative process for healthy change, inter-culturally and cross-culturally? I believe that integrating body, mind and spirit brings us into a more embodied – i.e. healthy, grounded, active, and clear – relationship with others, which makes us better able to sustainably address leadership challenges. There are many ways to lead, but the first step for transformation is to step more fully into our bodies and, by extension our community relationships, in order to create balance, support mutual health and build new ways of being.

The work is fundamentally repetitive – moment after moment of communication, evaluation and compassion. Even when we identify with culturally sanctioned skills, qualities, values and characteristics of effective transformational leaders, our Western system resists transformation. Our interwoven identities and organizational interdependencies have created a vast and largely unexamined system to protect core cultural habits of progress, heroic individuation and competition. However, authentic and earnest leaders may be, as individuals, entering this system and its self-preserving processes puts a strain on our abilities to reach radical goals. We may want to “be the change we wish to see in the world” (ascribed to Gandhi, per Potts, A34), but we are more likely to experience Noam Chomsky’s warning, “Case by case, we find that conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs” (10). These costs need not be as debilitating if we can develop an embodied flexibility, an authentic presence that goes beyond charisma to support holistic stamina.

With embodied self-development, leaders can develop the necessary capacity for holding and performing multiple identities within most systems (Burbank, “Shapeshifter Leadership,” 2012). I have called this necessary skill high-functioning shapeshifting, but in more theoretical terms it is the skillful performative layering of multiple roles that are always in negotiation. “Identities may [or may] not be congruent in the eyes of the individual or those with whom they come in contact” (Lumby, 356). Nonetheless, each individual uniquely carries “multiple identities related to their body, their history, their personal and professional selves” (Ibid.) Keeney uses cross cultural anthropology to argue that the serious and unsustainable illusion of congruence gets in the way of an effective and engaging community of flexible followers and leaders. He writes that the transformational leader must be a servant

to the callings of creative imagination, though it involves more than the mind that is limited by the boundaries of self. There is an obedience and submission to the greater minds of relationship, organization, culture, and even the whole ecology that constrains and frees them to be midwives for the higher order processes of transformation and growth. (55)

How do we attain this expansive freedom and responsibility in a healthy way? The most direct way of developing that necessary flexibility is through radically embodied presence. This kind of embodiment involves a fundamental reintegration of body, mind and spirit, developing evolutionary strengths that allow individual leaders to fully access the socially and biochemically relational consciousness, acknowledging that “brain, body and environment are mutually embedded systems” (Thompson and Varela, 423-24). Without integration, which gives access to the ephemeral energetic resource of the spirit, leaders will not have the resilience to build the holistic health of the global living system that Senge et. al. describe as “the presencing of the whole as it might be, not just as it has been” (183).

In my experience as a coach and educator, the most powerful tool for conformity (conscious and unconscious) is the profound disembodiment of personal and social identity in Western culture. In order to succeed, we must embrace narrow identities that variously compartmentalize physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences. We must therefore unlearn the habit of performing ourselves professionally and personally in one primary role, because that role too quickly becomes an unconscious naturalized mask to define our self-expression and frame our experience. A priest has different expectations for the best qualities of leadership than an athlete, a nurse, a president. These expectations are normalized as expected performances, qualities and stories about self that frame our experience. Some of them are functional; others are unhealthy.

In each role, conventionally performed, the qualities drawn from physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual ways of framing reality are emphasized, constrained or repressed, according to the identity prescribed. We agree to professionalize ourselves in a narrow band of action/expression to reap the benefits of conformity by connecting to the larger cultural performative grid. Leaders and followers participate in this network by choice, cultural training and coercion. In mainstream culture, characterized by a distrust of embodied practices and knowledge, and valuing a singular concept of identity, our agreement rapidly becomes a lifelong and habitual performance that frames all of our experiences. This is a human process, but it often interferes with healthy change. The story we live becomes the story of our life. Eventually, by living it in a way that reiterates our experience it becomes who we are (see Butler, 1993).

Therefore, change happens one person at a time, not because organizational structures are not capable of changing, but because leadership is a lived story and stories are intimate, personal identities. We must start with ourselves. Organizational transformation is not possible without individual transformation, and transformational leadership is difficult without support for integrated embodiment and the resilience it offers. The more conscious and integrated an individual is, the more embodied negotiations s/he can create within a system. These shifts towards greater freedom and clarity affect not only our roles as leaders but can ultimately shift the community and corporate structures that frame our expectation of leadership.

The call for holistic self-development is therefore a call for expansion and transformation, both for ourselves and for our cultures. In nursing leadership development, theory and praxis are already working towards this goal. Holistic training approaches integrate with an ethos of care, even moving into areas of spiritual development and experiential learning opportunities for nurses who can “help people attain and maintain a state of well-being in which the self-healing capabilities of body, mind and spirit can proceed unhindered” (Leathard & Cook, 1320). Even in progressive hospitals and clinics, holistic leadership and embodied self-expression can be further developed to support more effective and adaptive relationships and policies. Such processes should not be limited to conventional healing settings, or to clients and followers.

The first step for transformative leaders should be grounding their whole being in their body. Without this step, it doesn’t matter how values consistent or visionary a leader might be. Flexibility and long-term stamina must accompany all the unique gifts of a given leader. We may need to take on many roles in order to be successful leaders and probably will have to move into many uncomfortable areas to become transformative leaders. But if we have many roles, many selves we must cultivate in our relationships in community, we only have one body – and that is the root source that unifies, grounds, and balances our complex human lives. In coaching, training, and lifelong self-development, we can begin to strengthen that root while easing the challenges of embracing the necessary improvisations of our many selves. Supporting individuals as they choose to reconnect and ground their bodies, identities and stories, effective leadership development lays the groundwork for long-term resilience on all levels of consciousness, therefore strengthening immunity for a transformational struggle in the world.

It’s important to explicitly note that radical embodiment, to extend Thompson and Varela’s neural dynamic description of embodied sentience, is more than physical self-care. Exercise, good nutrition and rest are a good start towards nurturing the bodies we were born with and much of the literature on burnout, stress relief and embodied leadership focuses on training programs to improve the disembodied and unhealthy habits that compromise our immunity and somatoemotional balance (Denston 2001; Nelson and Burke 2000). Certainly, good leaders take care of themselves so they can stay healthy and have the energy and attention they need to do their work. However, these healthy habits alone are not the core idea of embodiment that I’ve embraced in my coaching practice and research. I believe genuine embodiment is more than acknowledging and celebrating the fact that we have a body that needs maintenance, pleasure and sustenance. We need to move beyond the body-as-fabulous-machine model of biology that effectively separates our physical experience from our emotional, spiritual and intellectual knowledge. In essence, we do not have a body, we are our bodies. And our bodies are more than a connection of vessels, organs, fascia, muscles and skin.

Bodies are the core place of emotion, cognition and our sense of self in biokinetic and interpersonal ways. Our physical selves are the places from which we create and manage all of our relationships – our words are only a small part of our connection and communication with others. In fact, the part of us that seems to be most ourselves – the quiet, secret self that western culture calls the soul — is not merely a passenger in the body, but somatically grounded in the physical experience of being human. “Sentience seems not to be organized according to sensory modality, but according to the regulatory and affective processes that constitute the… feeling of self,” (Thompson and Varela, 418), embodied but not merely of the body. Therefore, a leader who chooses to work towards integral embodiment is a leader who develops an innate evolutionary ability to communicate and relate with others in a healthy, grounded, attentive way. Embodied authenticity is more than “walking the talk,” as the cliché goes. It is an expanded sentience, a way of being self-aware without the separation (and loneliness) of hyperindividuation. Such authenticity helps a leader understand the interconnectedness of all the people s/he leads with, being present in the moment, and open to possibilities without being too reliant on disembodied and habitual stories about the past.

As a culture, we are often suspicious of such intimate transformations. They are not easily marketable or consumable by people who simply wish to conform with greater influence. Consider – like allopathic medicine, which offers pills to solve a problem (sometimes quite effectively, other times not) – leadership training generally focuses on a mental/intellectual concept or skill that is meant to help us improve our performance. Yet, in our organizations, these performances do not necessarily transform our circumstances or the structures that frame our roles. They simply make it easier to succeed and feel more authentic within a given structure – not an unimportant gift, but not transformative leadership. More intimate transformations, grounded in explorations of the deep stories, or archetypes, that shape even our most physical perceptions and psychological interactions, can shift the very terms of our identities. Because such unique development leads to innovative self-expression and transformative connections, many fully embodied leaders will initially become revolutionaries and tricksters. They may need to find a different kind of work place or expand their community connections in order to satisfy their renewed flexibility and creativity.

A force of resilience and confidence in radical embodiment is the engagement – and attention to – what we call in Western society, “the gut instinct,” but which many indigenous cultures understand as the seat of consciousness itself – our actual physical gut. The complex interdependency of the organs in our abdominal area and the dense cluster of neurons at the base of our spine generate a kind of intelligence that we ignore at our peril.Many prefer to claim the heart as the center of embodied wisdom, but whatever internal organ or area in our body’s core we identify as our physical intelligence, we benefit from acknowledging the grounded wisdom we carry there, because it reconnects us to our root source and to everything around us.

An attentive reconnection to the intelligence at the core of our body means we can pay attention to the kinetic and emotional information we observe and gather instinctively. This information is not merely knowledge about how we should choose or act in a given situation, but also about the quality of relationships and the holistic health of the members of our community. As leaders, when we depend primarily on the important structuring and framing functions of the mind, we observe abstract and distanced information. Our minds therefore can guard the stories we’ve made up about our experiences with a ferocity that keeps us feeling right, unitary, in control. But when we listen to our heart/gut, the valuable information of the mind is softened and contextualized by emotional intelligence and a kind of kinetic empathy. We have more information, and more specific information – because of an engaged attention to many layers of knowledge available to our senses and the fact that we are no longer blinded by subservience to a disembodied framework. We can, for example, consciously observe another persons somatoemotional performance and engage – often without words – with more honesty and humility. Instead of creating a frame within a frame within a frame – the analytical process that allows us to weave complex logical threads between ideas and experiences – we observe the frames already at work from a more whole person point of view. We move from egocentric to homocentric (Burbank, “Green Business Review,” 2012) and are able to be more honest and compassionate.

In the process, we change our perceptions of others and develop an overall ability to be present both for ourselves and others. This is the kind of authenticity that marks a transformational leader and it is at the root of effective innovation and systemic change. We can envision or support sustainable change by knowing, on an embodied level, the resources and limitation of the system we are changing, beginning with ourselves, extending into our relationships. This embodied knowledge supports a healthier weaving of the web of stories and structures that shape a community’s response to inevitable change. Further, we can maintain clarity of vision because we really see the process as a human process, accurately and with attention to the diversity of the community.

As a result, embodiment and healthy change go hand in hand; the performative aspects of our shifting identities cannot be abstracted without reducing our human relationships to shallow exchange and reward networks, markers of motivation in temporary adaptation. Long-term change happens because leaders can listen, observe, and activate relational processes to carry the shockwave of change with a minimum of trauma. That happens when a leader has evolved from what I call a “head on a stick”, locked into practiced consistent actions, the exhausting performance of a unitary self, and motivational charisma.

Once we align our stories and bodies with the intention of transforming a whole system, we have access to something that Western culture too often reduces to the seductive and persuasive quality of charisma. The more authentically embodied a leader becomes, the greater the potential that s/he can begin to move beyond charisma to express the creative energy Buddhists call ki or prana, Hawaiians call mana, and the Kalahari Bushmen call n/om. The quality of fullness and presence in this energy permeates the whole person by grounding and expanding inner wisdom and clarity, while strengthening connections between a leader and her community. With deepened energetic connection and integration of the levels of being through healthy embodiment, anyone can develop transformative leadership qualities. It is a practical result of radical embodiment.

The benefits of integrated self-discovery include this energetic resource, whatever we call it, to support somatoemotional strength, persuasive presence and creative problem solving, all side effects of embodied presence. In contemporary communities, challenged by the growing scarcity of resources and the emergence of new paradigms of organization and structure, this energy helps us access these sources of innovation and inspiration to make necessary, sustainable changes. Many believe we are at a tipping point, or past it; either way, alternative solutions to personal and social transformation must be found. It is likely that the hierarchies and values of mainstream Western culture must shift, if not entirely, at least in the way we understand the stories of identity and power in order to survive the dislocations of our time. Because systems innately resist the inevitable changes that challenge them, transformative leaders need the strength offered by the substantial but not necessarily measurable energy generated by integrative embodiment.

It would serve us well to turn to indigenous wisdom and alternative training and performative disciplines as we reach for new training approaches to move into healthier relationships with ourselves and with the earth. The Hawaiians speak of the discipline of aloha –ala (watchful alertness), lokahi (harmonious relationships), oiaio (truthful honesty), haʻa haʻa (humility), and ahonui (patient perseverance) – to build personal mana and create responsible manaʻo – embodied knowledge. According to cultural historian, George Kanahele, “Aloha sensitizes the leader to the desires and well-being of others, and creates in him an eagerness to help his people to gain their hopes… [prompted by] the naʻau, the guts” (417). Similarly, among the Bushmen, “led by what touches their hearts,” leadership qualities of those with strong n/om set “aside dominance-subordination hierarchies, [utilize] trust and sharing, [enact] synergistic relations, and [value] mystical and peak experiences” (52). Bradford Keeney notes, “The flow of n/om insures that all things will be kept in their appropriate place – on the ever-changing stage of transforming performances” (53).

Most incisively, Keeney notes that “leadership is momentary rather than fixed” and celebrates the Bushman sense of play and willingness to shake up a situation with improvisation and uniqueness (54). I have seen, over and over with my clients, that integrated embodiment produces a gradual reconnection with this playful spirit and soul-nurturing energy to deal with the ongoing and uneven process of becoming fully human. Ironically, Western culture needs the very things we distrust as a society – heartfelt/gut knowledge, passionate interconnection, and an appreciation for paradox. Through a spirited and spiritual sense of play balanced with willingness to serve, mana “is a replenishable force that can be acquired and increased, its magnitude and efficacy being limited only by the energy and commitment of the individual leader” (Kanahele, 419). Thus sustained, “transformational leaders are lightning rods for attracting the presence of the life force into the social situations that are in need of revitalization, inspiration, and leadership” (Keeney, 55).

Leaders are often the first who must let go of the imaginary unitary identities they perform as their public selves. Most difficult for our ego-driven identities, we may need to step in and out of the roles of leader and follower in order for vitality and innovation to be sustainable. Since leadership is a process, a series of moments demanding our full presence, we need to have the courage and humility to assess what is most needed, and let go of the theories, habits and stories that would drain solutions of their sustainability. We need to be strong enough to be this present to the context, people and crisis at hand. If we do not trust our bodies, or any other aspect of our experience, whether it may be mental, emotional or spiritual, then we cannot trust ourselves to be helpful. We cannot maintain the mana that keeps us connected to our purpose, the ki that connects us to each other in oneness, the n/om that allows us the freedom to shake things up.

Transformative leaders need abundant life force and grounded soul because each moment may require a different role and solution, and each solution requires inner and outer adaptation. A group of progressive, activist lawyers in Oakland, CA discovered that Buddhist mindfulness practice turned them simultaneously inward – towards enlightenment and the gathering of peaceful chi/ki, and outward towards compassionate and sustainable solutions for social oppression. In their meditative mission statement they state their own process was to be sure to be mindful themselves for their own healing:

We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. (Harris et. al, 2132)

Healing, mindfulness, life force. These are not easy words for Western culture to speak without excessive irony. Yet when we commit to radical embodiment, we find that this sense of peace and transformational purpose is ordinary, and that anyone, from their position in their families and communities, embodies the best values of transformational leadership. As stated by James McGregor Burns:

The “truth” of a transforming frame is in its potency, its ability to strike a deep chord. A resonant frame can liberate a person from the isolation of frustrated, unacknowledged wants, into the realm of new and shared meanings, to become a “reflective participant” in what creativity scholar Robert Paul Weiner described as a collective effort to shape and reshape those meanings “as they grow and change through the interaction of the participants and in the crucible of theory and praxis.” At their best, creative thought and action engender, for leaders and followers together, the conviction that the reality of their situation is not, in the words of the great Brazilian educator and theorist of liberation Paulo Freire, “a closed world from which there is no exit,” but “a limiting situation which they can transform,” a mobilizing and empowering faith in the collaborative struggle for real change (169).

Real change of this kind demands a deeply nourished root self – an integrated resource of body, mind and spirit. One radically embodied person can make a difference in a disembodied culture by simply being present, becoming a well-fueled, flexible force for transformation. Imagine the power of such embodiment in a person willing to take the risks of public leadership, in any sphere. When disembodiment and disconnective habits are the norm, the embodied leader has the resilience, resources and grounding to dance with change.

What will be the result of supporting radical embodiment in transformative leadership, however we find to do so? We do not know. It is an emergent paradigm, not an established practice. But I believe it will be the powerful and playful presence of the transforming leader that grounds the possible in the unknown, improvising and inspiring improvisation, healing completely and fully and inspiring movement towards complete and full health. Transformative leadership may be innately visionary, but it must also be a grounded visionary process, moment by moment, step by step. Whole people create whole processes, curiosity and hope, body and mind and soul. With radical embodiment, it is possible to frame the steps that will manifest the impossible, the joyfully unimaginable, the delightfully improbable, the never-seen, never-done. Starting in the body, moving into the world, irrepressible, radical, liberating, and profoundly practical, it is our best hope.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. NY: Routledge, 1993.

Burbank, Carol. “Shapeshifter Leadership: Responding Creatively to the Challenges of a Complex World.” In The Transforming Leader, ed. Carol Pearson.  San Francisco: Barrett-Kohler, 2013. pp. 140-149.

Burbank, Carol. “Green Business Leadership.” Business Leadership Review. January 2012. Accessed June 1, 2012.

Burns, James Macgregor (2004-01-30). Transforming Leadership. Grove Press. Kindle Edition.

Chomsky, Noam. Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. Cambridge: South End Press, 1989.

Denston, Ian L. “Re-Thinking Burnout.” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22;8 (Dec. 2001). pp. 833-847.

Harris, Angela, Margaretta Lin and Jeff Selbin. “From The Art of War to Being Peace: Mindfulness and Community Lawyering in a Neoliberal Age.” California Law Review, 95;5 (October 2007). pp. 2073-2132.

Kanahele, George Hu’eu Sanford. Ku Kanaka: Stand Tall. Hilo, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

Keeney, Bradford. “N/om and Transformative Leadership: Considering the Embodied Know-How of the Kalahari Bushman N/om-Kxaosi.” Re/Vision. 30; 3-4 (Winter 2010). pp. 51-56.

Leathard, Helen L. and Michael J. Cook. “Learning for Holistic Care: Addressing Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) and the Spiritual Sphere.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 65(6), 1318-1327.

Lumby, Jacky. “Performativity and Identity: Mechanisms of Exclusion.” Journal of Education Policy. 24;3 (May 2009). pp. 353-369.

Nelson, Debra L. and Ronald J. Burke. “Women Executives: Health, Stress and Success.” Executive Health, 14; 2 (May 2000). pp. 107-121.

Potts, Michel W. “Arun Gandhi Shares the Mahatma’s Message” India – West [San Leandro, California] Vol. XXVII, No. 13 (1 February 2002) p. A34.

Senge, Peter M.; Scharmer, C. Otto; Jaworski, Joseph; Flowers, Betty Sue (2005-08-16). Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society. Crown Business. Kindle Edition, 2005.

Thompson, Evan and Francisco J. Varela. “Radical Embodiment: Neural Dynamics and Consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 5;10 (October 2001). pp. 418-425.

About the Author

Carol Burbank, Ph.D. is president of Storyweaving Coaching and Consulting, building holistic and creative leadership development programs, supporting individual development and sustainable organizational change. She teaches interdisciplinary approaches to leadership and the humanities, currently in the MA in Engaged Humanities Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has served as faculty at Union Institute and University, and the University of Maryland. She was a senior fellow in the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her leadership research has been published in the collection, The Transforming Leader (ed. by Carol Pearson) and in journals including: Business Leadership Review, ILA(International Leadership Association) publications, Indigenous Issues and Culture. Her current research and explorations of spirited leadership in contemporary times can be found in her blog, Lead Me On ( Contact information:


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