The concept of embodied leadership has been around for a while but hasn’t necessarily made its way onto everyone’s radar yet.
While it is an impactful discipline for all leaders, I think it has some additional value for leaders under 40.
Younger leaders often face frustrating opposition or condescending dismissal - because of their age, perceived lack of experience, and because they want to challenge the status quo.
Succumbing to that frustration or letting the elders’ energy get you down is all too easy and distracts you from the impact you want to have.
An embodied leadership approach can help keep you true to yourself.
It is also a fundamental concept that underpins executive presence.
It’s common to think of the body solely as a vehicle to transport your brain, a machine to optimize, or an object to beautify.
Your body and your relationship to your body matter for how you show up as a leader.
Basically, it says all three are equally important and helps you leverage an awareness of the feedback loop between your:
From neuroscience, evidence points to us having whole-body responses to emotionally-charged events, as opposed to simply processing something in the brain. The somatic marker hypothesis says that each emotional event we store in memory has a series of bodily sensations stored, too.
Suppose when you were in high school you gave a presentation that went very poorly. Some of your classmates laughed at you and your teacher made a harsh comment about your work. The way you felt in that moment got stored as an emotional memory.
Suppose that every time you give a presentation, a part of you is recalling that memory and you tense up in response and feel the pang of the sting from that moment. What you are feeling in your body now is a somatic marker.
By adulthood, we can end up with many, many of these patterned/conditioned responses.
To be a more embodied leader, it is important to become aware of how the past is showing up now via somatic markers.
A helpful strategy to help become aware of somatic markers and to disrupt them is a version of centering. The purpose is to come to a neutral state, so you can make active choices, not run by your historic somatic markers.
This is not about tamping down or ignoring emotions. It is about full awareness of emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
You can do this standing or sitting, and with eyes open or closed. You’ll eventually want to be able to do it with eyes open, but it can be helpful to start with eyes closed as you get the hang of it. Also, at first it will typically take you a longer amount of time to find your center. With practice, you’ll be able to do in a few seconds, with eyes open, on the fly during a meeting.
This audio recording guides you through a centering exercise. You might want to give it a try right now or you might want to wait to do it until you are just coming off a charged interaction or are feeling stressed to see how it feels.
Your challenge for the week is to choose a somewhat neutral stimulus and do a centering each time you encounter it. Maybe you do it before a standing meeting, or you set a timer, or you do it whenever you get a phone call. The purpose is to get familiar with the practice.
Brainstorm a list of situations that you routinely encounter (or avoid!) that you will explore for somatic markers (e.g., giving a presentation, dealing with conflict, high stakes interactions with someone at work, etc.).
Choose one item from your list to focus on. First, imagine yourself in the situation and see which somatic markers stand out to you. It can help to close your eyes and really picture the situation vividly – as if you are truly in it. After pausing to notice your somatic markers, bring yourself fully back into the simulated situation. Now practice centering. You can do it with or without the recording. Notice how you are feeling now. What are the subtle changes versus the more noticeable ones?
For the next few weeks, in real time, observe your initial conditioned response to the situation and see if you can start to regain access to your embodied self through centering.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick primer on embodied leadership. There’s of course much more to explore but if this is all you ever do with it, I think you’ll still get value from adding it to your leadership toolkit.