The role of physicality in leadership
Being a great leader isn’t just about making careful choices and guiding people towards your way of thinking. It’s about connecting with others in a way which engenders respect and makes them want to follow your directions because they believe in you and want to do well for you.
In other words it’s not just how to talk the talk. You need to demonstrate leadership by walking the walk as well.
Your physicality has a significant effect on those around you. It also influences how you feel. And you can use it in very powerful ways.
Recognise the mind-body connection
We know that there are many links between the mind and body. The connection is well known by the medical profession and, if we veer away from leadership to look at health for a moment, the links are easy to see.
A negative mental state can create physical illness. There’s a clear correlation between psychological factors and an increased likelihood of heart disease, for example. And how we see ourselves in relation to others – our social status – is also a major cause of ill health. This status syndrome is related to how much control we have over our own lives and what opportunities we have to participate in society.
But while the mind can have negative effects, the reverse is also true. We can harness the power of our own psychology to achieve great things.
Using health again as a tool to understand this, it is clear that mind-body therapies can help people to manage chronic pain conditions like arthritis, and ease symptoms of disease. There’s even a practice of hypnosurgery, where patients are sedated before an operation using hypnotherapy alone, with no anaesthetic.
So the mind can control the body. But how much can the body control the mind? And how does this impact on leadership?
There’s a growing body of evidence that the way we hold ourselves and the way we move can change the way we think and speak.
In one of the most watched TED talks, renowned social scientist Amy Cuddy explains how we are “influenced by our non-verbals – our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology”.
Dr Cuddy’s research shows that when we put ourselves into a physically powerful, open posture, our testosterone levels rise, both in women and in men. As testosterone is, in effect, the ‘dominance’ hormone, this gives us a feeling of supremacy and authority over others.
Our powerful posture is also linked with a drop in our levels of cortisol – the stress hormone. In other words we become less stressed when we physically display more power, and this helps us to feel more powerful.
Conversely when we take on a closed posture, shrinking our body into itself, for example by hunching or by crossing our arms and legs, our testosterone levels drop and our cortisol levels rise. In other words we feel less powerful and we become less powerful when we act less powerful.
Dr Cuddy suggests adopting a power pose for a couple of minutes before any stressful event, creating the right frame of mind and body to feel confident and in control.
Shaping your body, shaping your mind
While Amy Cuddy advocates “fake it till you make it” and “fake it till you become it”, we need to do more than just pose to demonstrate leadership in a true physical sense. There’s no substitute for a strong and steady executive presence.
Specialists from areas as diverse as martial arts, psychology and chiropractic have studied the links between physicality, kinaesthetic sensation and executive presence. And they’ve all come up with pretty much the same answer: there’s a deep-seated relationship between what we do with our body, the way our mind works and how people perceive us.
The crux of this is that the shapes we make with our bodies are directly related to how we feel inside. People pick up on this and respond to us accordingly.
To take an extreme example, if we feel low or depressed, our body will literally be de-pressed: pressed down by our feelings and held in a slumped position. How many people will look up to us if this is the physical message that we give out? It’s no way to demonstrate leadership.
“Life makes shapes”, according to Stanley Keleman, a chiropractor who has pioneered the study of links between our musculoskeletal system and our feelings. His book, Emotional Anatomy, shows exactly what we do to ourselves, using a series of pictures and diagrams to represent the bodily shapes we create and how they come across to others.
Understanding others, understanding ourselves
It’s often easy to understand how someone feels. Most people read body language automatically without even realising it. Facial expressions in particular seem to arise from our genetic make-up as human beings. We communicate our emotions through six universal expressions which everybody understands, regardless of age, culture or language.
But while reading other people’s body language might be a walk in the park, it can be difficult to notice what we communicate through our own physicality. That’s why a whole industry of body psychotherapy, physical teaching and somatic coaching has sprung up to help us achieve the results we want.
Learning to demonstrate leadership through embodiment
It’s a minefield out there. As a novice in the physicality of leadership, how do you decide which discipline to trust to help you make the most of your body? So many practitioners claim to help you demonstrate leadership through embodiment.
Here are just a few examples of some of the techniques on offer…
The ‘DIY’ guide, Embodying Experience, provides a five-step methodology towards getting rid of outmoded behaviour patterns and reassembling the elements of your experience into new and better behaviours.
Alexander Technique teaches you how to use your body in an optimal way, through a series of very gentle hands-on lessons and repetitive actions which increase your kinaesthetic awareness and empower you to replace unhelpful habits with comfortable ways of moving with grace and presence. (I’m a big fan of this.)
The practice of Leadership Embodiment mixes principles of Aikido and mindfulness with theories of biology and neuroscience to help you develop a deeper feeling of leadership and a greater aura of authority.
Somatic coaching also leans on psychobiology and mindfulness, training you to become more aware of sensations – listening to your heart and your gut as well as your brain, for example – and helping you to release physical habits and patterns, allowing you to move more fluidly and with greater presence.
There are dozens of other body-related practices to choose from as well. It’s no wonder people get confused.
Choosing your best path to embodied leadership
While working out the best discipline to follow, it seems sensible to do your research then follow your gut instinct. Which concept makes you feel more comfortable? Which do you feel drawn to? You can only achieve change when you trust and engage in a process fully, so it needs to feel right from the start.
Having said that, the physical approach might not be appropriate for you in the first place. You might not have the time, patience or staying power to immerse yourself in practices which can take years to learn. Or you might feel that immersing yourself in physicality risks reducing your intellectual focus.
Demonstrate leadership through powerful communication
My approach is to help clients embody leadership naturally, almost as a side effect of communicating differently, rather than focusing on the body alone. This approach succeeds quickly without the need for years of work.
By starting to own your words more effectively and by communicating stronger messages, you will feel more powerful and appear more powerful. You will gain greater influence by developing a richer, more resonant voice. And when you start to question people more resourcefully and listen from a different perspective, you are likely to draw out creative suggestions and visionary ideas to help you and your business succeed.
All these elements of leadership communication, along with many more in my coaching repertoire, will empower you to convey strength and authority – enhancing your physical presence and raising your reputation as a leader.