Able bodied: why the best leaders are paying more attention to their bodies

This week, I had the ‘mother of all breakthroughs’ on a professional problem I’d been grappling with for such a long time – to the point where I was sick to death of it.

What caused the monumental epiphany?

I got out of my head and into my body.

Here’s what happened. I was talking to my coach about the issue (yes, coaches have coaches!). Almost out of desperation, he suggested I stand up and physically map out the situation. Despite my initial self-consciousness at this unorthodox approach, we ended up with a sort of continuum in the room – with one extreme option at one end and another extreme option at the other end  – and with me physically moving between different scenarios, testing my response.

By the end of the experiment, I was leaping about, talking excitedly with light bulb moments going off all over the place.  It was cool to experience (and witness, so I was told).

After months of being in my head, trying to solve the problem with thinking, I solved it in a mere few minutes by getting OUT of my head and tuning into my other senses.

I solved it by getting into my body.

For decades, leadership research and discussion has focused on the mind – what and how we think.

But what’s been missing (until now) is the leadership link between the mind and the body.

Thankfully, in recent years, spurred in part by Harvard’s Amy Cuddy and her team’s research on high power posing, a heightened surge of work on the mind-body connection has taken place in the fields of psychology, business and medicine.

For example, Richard Strozzi-Heckler is a Ph.D. psychologist and multiple black belt level Aikido instructor, who has made it his life’s work to teach leadership through the body. For him, working through the body is about contacting the basic life energy moving through an individual and interacting with the emotional character shaped by that energy. He’s enabling his clients to access the wisdom stored in their bodies to cultivate a deeper relationship with themselves.  

We now know there’s a powerful connection between body movement and subsequent emotion or cognition.

We also know through a variety of studies demonstrating effects on attention, executive function, processing speed and working memory, that regular exercise likely prevents cognitive decline.

We are also beginning to understand and explore within leadership frameworks, embodied cognition, the  belief that many features of human cognition are shaped by aspects of the body beyond the brain. 

“The properties of mind are not purely mental: They are shaped in crucial ways by the body and brain and how the body can function in everyday life. The embodied mind is thus very much of this world. Our flesh is inseparable from what Merleau-Ponty called the “flesh of the world” and what David Abram refers to as “the-more-than-human-world.” Our body is intimately tied to what we walk on, sit on, touch, taste, smell, see, breathe, and move within. Our corporeality is part of the corporeality of the world.” ― George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought.

If these are not good reasons to get out of your head and tune into your body,  I don’t know what is.

This body-mind connection may be a critical missing piece in the formula for effective, positive leadership.

Here are 5 ways you can get out of your head and tune into the power of the physical:

  1. Bodystorm.  Bodystorming is a unique method that spans empathy work, ideation and prototyping. It’s a technique where you physically experience a situation to derive new ideas. It requires setting up an experience – complete with the necessary artefacts and people – and physically ‘testing’ it. It can also include physically changing your space during ideation. It’s awesome for creating unexpected ideas that might not be realised by talking or sketching. If you’re involved in new product development, customer experience or even if you’re just trying to be innovative or solve a problem, it’s a powerful tool to unlock right brain and creative thinking.
  1. Practice somatic awareness. In other words, pay attention to where you feel emotions in your body – particularly when you become frustrated, angry, stressed or anxious. This is a useful mindfulness technique, especially when you couple it with taking several deep breaths. When we breathe deeply, especially when we are stressed or angry, it engages the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system which leads to a reduction in stress and an increase in cognitive functions – pretty useful stuff if you are a leader.
  1. Pay more attention to what is not being said – to people’s body language and facial expressions. One of the most critical skills for leaders of our time is to develop Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Paying attention to your own and others’ body language is an easy and effective way to access this. Even better, if you notice a dissonance between what someone is saying and their body language, name it and check it out with them – “tell me more…what’s going on?”  
  1. Move. Do exercise you love – and do it regularly.  It doesn’t matter if its crossfit, triathlons or synchronised swimming. The trick with exercise is to choose something that floats your boat and the one you are most likely to do. Just move. And regularly. It will make you a better leader.
  1. Try using your body (not your brain) for solving a problem. If like me,  you find yourself stuck in a mental traffic jam, get up and move. Just get into your body, get physical and stop trying to work it out with your head. It’s amazing how this can unlock something, even energetically.

Bringing our attention back to the physical body enables us to notice important aspects of the human experience – like emotions, habitual reactions, the exchange of energy and natural rhythm.

What results have you had by getting out of your head and into your body? I’d love to hear from you – please leave your comments below.

1 Comment

  1. Nick Jessett on September 12, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Great post Suzi! I worked with a coach who used to draw the scenario that he was working on. He said that it helped him to get into reality of the problem and engage with the people and situation in a much more meaningful way.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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