Embodied leadership: how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

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To develop into more connected, purposeful leaders, we need to become more attuned to our emotional and physical responses to difficult situations.

'Is that the opposite of disembodied leadership?' is a quip I sometimes get when I mention this concept. It’s meant as a joke, but the answer is yes – it is.

In James Joyce’s Dubliners, Mr Duffy ‘lived a short distance from his body’. It’s a strange line, and yet we all have a sense of what that means, and whom we could identify in our lives as similar to Mr Duffy.

He is disconnected from himself, from his emotions and a wider sense of purpose or what he cares about. And yet this is exactly the image of the human being at work as a rational mind (homo-economicus) that pervades our culture.

The question I would like you to consider is whether you would follow Mr Duffy as a leader.

My guess is that you would be unlikely to choose to follow anyone as disconnected or disembodied as Mr Duffy. At some level this cultural sense of disconnection is, in my opinion, at the root of many of the problems we face in the world. It is also at the root of our inability to develop leaders who genuinely inspire us and move us forward.

How do we develop embodied leadership?

The simple answer is that we need leaders who can engage with themselves and thus others, who have a sense of purpose and know what is important to them. Our emotions tell us what we care about, and our emotions show up below the surface, in our physical bodies.

Therefore, we need to be willing to take the ‘self-consciousness raising’ step of doing leadership development that engages with our bodies.

Rather than treating it as the machine that moves our head from coffee break to reading PowerPoint presentations, in embodied leadership the body is the site of our leadership development work.

It is in our bodies that we experience the emotions and sensations that drive us to action. For example, think of a time when you were embarrassed. Think back to that moment and remember it – how does that feel?

Just thinking back to the memory of that experience is likely to cause you to feel the pain of it again. You do not just remember the memory as a cognitive thought, but there is an ‘emotional soundtrack’ attached, which you feel as sensations in your body – sensations which leave you feeling uncomfortable.

Why we avoid difficult situations

As human beings, we store these ‘emotional soundtracks’ to our memories and they play inside our bodies in situations that appear in some way similar to the experience where we learnt them.

Neuroscience refers to these as somatic markers. So, if you walk into a new situation, which has similarities with the embarrassing situation you remembered, this emotional soundtrack will play inside your body as a warning.

It’s evolution’s way of warning you of danger – perhaps originally designed for lions in the savannah, but playing now in an organisation near you.

British people queue so well, because they have somatic markers from their experiences of being told off by parents (and others) for not waiting their turn – try skipping a queue if you want to feel that emotional soundtrack play in your body!

So far, so good. Except, that often a sensation arises within us – e.g. your nose gets itchy – and you act to make yourself comfortable – scratching your nose – before even being aware of the sensation.

This is part of normal life. However, somatic markers can play out in the same way, with us having limited awareness of the emotional soundtrack, and accompanying sensations, and thus reacting to them.

So, we are in a meeting where conflict emerges. The somatic marker associated with conflict plays an emotional soundtrack inside our bodies and we find ourselves, for example, placating and making peace, even though it was an important and useful conflict. And we don’t even see that we are reacting to make ourselves comfortable.

Or, we walk into a networking event with some important people and, for example, we find ourselves at the side of the room answering a few emails. This is all because the experience of having to go up and make relationships with people we don’t know is evoking a somatic marker, which is making us uncomfortable.

Rationalising our response to discomfort

In this way, much of our behaviour can be seen as a desire to make ourselves more comfortable in a situation, because of our somatic markers.

British people queue so well, because they have somatic markers from their experiences of being told off by parents (and others) for not waiting their turn – try skipping a queue if you want to feel that emotional soundtrack play in your body!

We often are unaware of this discomfort, and if someone asks us why we did what we did, we can post-rationalise a wonderfully rational response. For example, “the emails I was responding to at the side of the networking event really were important.”

Of course, they were, there are always important emails to answer, but was that the most important thing to be doing in that moment? And, crucially, what was driving the choice of action? A considered response to the relative importance, or the discomfort of the networking event?

What does it mean to develop leaders who can be connected with themselves?

It means to develop leaders who can tolerate the discomforts which arise, who can face the internalised emotion contained in the somatic marker and who can then choose to respond differently.

Of course, responding differently is not simple. If I have been responding to the discomfort evoked in me by conflict, by placating and peace-making, or withdrawing, then being able to take a different action (consistently, and when under pressure) will require practise.

We must learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable, and then we have to practise new actions, such as holding our ground in conflict.

Learning how to deal with conflict productively will involve responses to the complex context and situation, including the political dynamics and relationships in the room. There is no simple guide saying in situation x, do y (despite attempts by many authors).

The only way to learn the ability to respond effectively to the nuance of the moment is practise. There will therefore need to be a period of practise and learning, while staying present to our own discomforts.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

Leadership development needs to involve the body as the site where all of this action is taking place. We must learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable, and then we have to practise new actions, such as holding our ground in conflict.

Embodied Leadership is about developing such an awareness and learning practices that will enable us to cultivate the leadership we wish to bring to our teams, organisations and the world.

This is not an easy journey to embark upon – it is easier to sit and look at PowerPoint slides and conceptually think about what you could, should or would do in a particular scenario or case study.

However, the journey is essential to developing leadership that is embodied, connected and purposeful, and where we are able to take new actions which were previously unavailable to us.

This, I would argue, is what our organisations and our world needs right now from its leaders.

About Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill

Pete is a consultant, facilitator and coach with an international background in leadership and organisational development. He is interested in leadership and personal development, including the role that conflict plays in organisations and society. 

Following a spell working in not-for-profit organisations, he started a dotcom during the dotcom boom, and closed it down during the bust. His subsequent years have been spent in consultancy, initially in strategy, and for the last 14 years, in leadership and organisational development. His clients have included BP, Barclays, the Boston Consulting Group, KPMG, HSBC, NHS, Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Institute of Cancer Research, University of Reading and Virgin Atlantic.

From 2006 to 2011 he was a senior consultant with Roffey Park Institute, and continues to work on the faculty for their MSc in People & Organisational Development and their Post-Graduate Certificate in Coaching. 

Pete is the only executive coach in Europe to have completed an intensive four-month training internship with Dr. Richard Strozzi-Heckler at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. He has been certified as a Master Somatic Leadership Coach and has completed a Certificate in Humanistic Counselling with the Gestalt Centre in London. He has also completed an MSc in Change Agent Skills & Strategies at the University of Surrey, where his dissertation focused on conflict in teams. In addition Pete is licensed to deliver Barry Oshry’s Organisation Workshop and is certified to use the FIRO-B, Change Style Indicator, the Global Leadership Profile and SDI psychometric instruments.

Pete practises martial arts, reads across a wide range of topics, and enjoys travelling on adventures to various parts of the world. He has published articles in a range of publications, including The Times, HR Magazine, People Management, The Retailer, and Charities Management, and has written a book entitled Embodied Leadership, which was published in June 2013 by Kogan Page. He is currently undertaking a part-time PhD to further his research on Embodied Leadership.

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04th Oct 2018 15:40

Excellent piece - thanks. As you may know, we at Maynard Leigh pioneered the use of theatre techniques in leadership development. Theatre-based experiential learning is exactly the sort of development I think you're talking about. Leaders on our workshops or in coaching have the chance to rehearse new behaviours and truly embody their purpose, so that they can inspire others. Such embodiment requires 'whole-self' learning using every aspect of intelligence - intellectual, psychological, emotional, kinesthetic etc. It's why we sometimes take senior execs into a West End theatre to practise.
Thanks, Michael.

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05th Oct 2018 08:39

I don't think that you ever really grow unless you find yourself learning from being in an uncomfortable situation. And lord knows that running a self storage facility leads you to A LOT of uncomfortable situation sometimes! I'm pretty sure that anybody in a service line can relate to that! you never know who's going to walk through your doors asking for something totally weird or out of the blue. And we learn from those experiences to better handle ourselves and become a better person for it I reckon!

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24th Oct 2018 21:45

Excellent article, you don't grow as an individual unless you can cope with stressful situations!

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