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Meeting Leadership Challenges with Somatic Intelligence

Meeting Leadership Challenges with Somatic Intelligence

I recently read an interesting article in the June 2012 McKinsey Quarterly, called “Leading in the 21st Century.” It has excerpts from interviews with 6 global leaders, including CEO’s of multinational organizations and one head of state. Its focus is on how leadership challenges have changed over the past decade or so, as the speed and volatility of the world we live in has increased.

What I find most interesting about the article is the way in which several of the leaders’ comments reflect the critical importance of what I call “somatic intelligence.” They don’t use these words, but when I read their comments I am reminded over and over of the exercises I do with leaders in the “Leadership Embodiment” workshop I offer. I’ve highlighted a few of the connections below, but I encourage you to read the article yourself, and let me know what you think!

Josef Ackermann (Deutsche Bank): On the one hand, [as a global leader] you have to be more confident and secure, but on the other, you have to be a lot more open and empathetic. You need to listen, but then when you make a decision, that’s it—you must be a very hard driver. Usually, these are not attributes you find in the same person.

What’s the connection? Ackermann is talking here about two basic capacities: 1) being open and receptive to whatever is coming at you, and 2) advocating and moving your position forward clearly and powerfully. In Leadership Embodiment terms, these are somatic capacities – you can’t think your way into them. Both require starting from a centered, balanced, wholly present place, and then focusing and shaping your energy and attention in a way that supports your ability to skillfully receive or advocate. In the Leadership Embodiment workshop I offer, these capacities are cultivated through the partner centering and advocating/listening exercises.

Dan Vasella (Novartis): You have to be able to switch on and switch off. Are you entirely present when you’re present? Can you be entirely away when you’re away? The expectation is that your job is 24/7. But no one can be the boss 24/7. You need to have a moment when you say, “I’m home now,” and work is gone.

What’s the connection? In this quote, Vasella points to one of the fundamental principles of Leadership Embodiment, which is that energy follows attention. What we pay attention to shapes the energy we bring to whatever we’re doing. You know this: if you’re physically home, but distracted by work responsibilities, the quality of the energy you bring to family interactions is very different than if you’re really home, both physically and mentally. The key here is that the ability to focus your attention, and thus shape the quality of your energy, can be enhanced with practice. It’s like a muscle that you can strengthen with the proper training.

Moya Greene (Royal Mail Group): I start at five in the morning. I don’t even think about it anymore; the alarm goes off and I’m up. I go for a 30-minute run. I do weight training three mornings a week. I try to eat well, but not too much. I’m a big walker—that’s my favorite thing. I try to get a good walk every weekend. I go on walking vacations.

What’s the connection? Greene is describing her habit of dedicated practice. No competence or increased capacity develops without consistent practice, and when it comes to somatic intelligence, practice is especially important. The body learns through repetition. Dedicated practice is just what it sounds like – setting aside regular time to dedicate to your own well-being. In Leadership Embodiment terms, we also talk about identifying regular times to practice centering – checking in with yourself, noticing whatever level of tension you’re experiencing, and consciously shifting your attention and your physical state to support a more open and relaxed stance.

Article Authors: Many leaders [we interviewed] highlighted the value of “stress-testing” members of the top team to gauge their ability to cope with crisis. We heard again and again that otherwise competent managers can’t always perform in moments of extraordinary pressure. The chief executive of one of the world’s largest companies marveled at how, in the face of a cash flow crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, two of his top reports “shattered like glass.”

What’s the connection? The ability to function well under pressure is a core leadership competence, and begins with the somatic practice of centering. All of the exercises of the Leadership Embodiment workshop rest on the foundation of the 4-part centering practice that is at the heart of the work. As you practice centering, over and over again, you cultivate the ability to meet challenges – even overwhelming challenges – with dignity, openness, and creativity rather than tension and reactivity.

As I said, I encourage you to read the article for yourself. And if you’re interested, you can learn more about my Leadership Embodiment workshop here.

Your turn: Do these leaders’ comments about the challenges of leadership resonate with you? How do you maintain your equilibrium in the face of the challenges you face? What practices support you?

Photo courtesy of Bunny Paffenroth, Flickr Creative Commons

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