Cultivating Embodied Leadership
Why Embodied Leadership is a Sustainable and Empowering Management Style
What makes a leader?
Is it superior communication skills? Being highly organized? The ability to influence and inspire change in an organization and other people? Good leadership is sometimes attributed to confidence, critical thinking, and being able to make good decisions under pressure.
There’s no denying that these are all extremely useful management skills. But if you want to be more than just a “good enough” leader, there’s another set of skills that are paramount.
The Current Path to Leadership — and What’s Wrong with It
It’s a familiar story. A promising young executive is quickly promoted through a company. Despite completing the best management and leadership courses, they lose the respect of people who were once their colleagues and friends.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for executives to lose their interpersonal skills as they climb the corporate ladder. With mounting responsibilities and deadlines, their work becomes heavily mental — making decisions, developing strategies, and coping with extreme time pressure.
Their learning-by-osmosis (observing the managers and leaders around them) is supplemented by courses and professional learning experiences that are often heavily cognitive. While these have their benefits, they lack the experiential element.
Most organizations rely on and invest their learning and development (L&D) budgets in cognitive-based learning and theorizing. These are not small sums. In the United States, corporate training spending has seen a significant increase in 2022, exceeding $100 billion USD. However, while the typical leadership programs that companies invest in include titles like “being” or “becoming” a leader, they seldom involve putting you in a state of being or feeling.
The outcome is senior managers who know how to become a leader rather than how to be a leader. They have the knowledge, but it’s not embodied — even though research has shown that we learn quicker and retain lessons better through our bodies.
What Does Embodied Leadership Look Like?
I recently started working with Kate, an ambitious lawyer who has her eyes fixed on the top management positions within her firm (for confidentiality purposes, Kate is not her real name). She is extremely good at her job, but as Kate takes on increasingly senior positions, she fears she’s not having the level of impact she needs to keep progressing.
By observing Kate presenting in different scenarios, I noticed that she was shrinking her physical self in meetings, overextending, and leaning forward. While she may have been saying all the right things, she was showing up to others as apologetic, which, of course, is not a trait valued in competent lawyers. Taking a cognitive- or theory-based course on improving her communication skills wouldn’t have revealed where Kate needed to make changes.
And this is what we mean by embodied leadership.
It’s how you habitually show up in a way that is consistent with who you want to be and how that impacts your mood.
It’s how your colleagues react to and organize themselves around your energetic and physical presence.
To get started, ask yourself the following questions
- When people speak, are you actually listening?
- Does your body language communicate approachability, or do you have an invisible wall around you?
- Do you act or react when faced with challenges?
- Is there a way for you to show up that also inspires others?
How can You Learn to Become an Embodied Leader?
Embodied leadership can’t be taught by PowerPoint. Change happens through the body, so therefore you must practice taking aligned action with your body.
Embodied learning is also known as kinesthetic learning, and it’s all about being aware of how you take action and its impact on yourself, your goals, and others. You develop your leadership skills through practice, presence, and continued commitment — not just cognitive learning.
As a quick exercise, try standing or sitting like you’re talking to your colleagues. Lean to one side, then the other. Now scratch your head, stroke your chin, or gesture emphatically with your hands. Does that feel different from how you usually present physically? How are you being perceived?
Working on Presence is for Everyone
While embodied leadership training is ideal for helping senior professionals navigate the work environment, the skills are beneficial to everybody, across all settings. All learning is more sustainable and “sticky” when the focus is on embodiment rather than cognitive understanding. Somatic (or bodily) awareness is integral in cultivating emotional intelligence, presence, and exploring what leadership truly looks like for you.