Leadership Embodiment, by Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford

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n.b. I read and reviewed this book as part of my coaching program, hence the references to coaching throughout this post.

Subtitled “How the way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak”, this book is an introduction to how our physical presence influences how we act and how we are perceived as people and leaders. Wendy Palmer has a sixth degree black belt in aikido, and is also a leadership coach, and that combination helped her to see how the way certain leaders were moving and presenting themselves was detracting from their leadership presence. In the first half of the book, Palmer outlines a few practical techniques leaders can use to command the room more effectively. Janet Crawford provides the neuroscience to explain why those techniques work in the second half of the book, “The Biology Behind It All”.

The key distinction Palmer and Crawford share in this book is the difference between leading from Personality or from Center. When leading from Personality, we are looking to fulfill our biological needs for three areas, which the authors describe as “the Head wants control, the Heart wants approval, and the Core wants safety”. They point out that “to be an effective leader, you need to engage all of yourself”, such that you have “unification and alignment of Head, Heart and Core”.

This alignment is not metaphorical, but a physical process of getting Centered in our body. Finding a Centered alignment is not a matter of reading the book and thinking about it; it requires building a completely new set of muscular responses such that the body doesn’t fall back into the responses it has learned over the course of a lifetime. They suggest doing a 20-second Centering practice ten to twenty times a day to build the new responses into your body at a deep level so they become the “natural” response to stress; as they say, “You have to have deep, embodied experiences of the new way to behave in order to be skillful when you are under pressure”. This is important because “our centered, uplifted posture physically changes our perspective and allows us to see more possibilities”

The authors observe that it is not realistic to aspire to always be Centered. These practices “can increase your capacity to recover your balance and spend more time in a centered state of being”. In other words, we can use our body to detect when we have fallen into acting from Personality, and take appropriate action in the form of a Centering practice to recover. I particularly liked the idea that observing the physical stance of a client or of ourselves under stress tells us about habitual responses e.g. when I tried the exercises myself, I found my head forward of the rest of my body, showing that when I am stressed, I try to control the situation with my mind. Now when I notice my head is forward of my body, it reminds me to straighten up into Centered alignment and do a 5- or 20-second centering practice.

More generally, I find myself paying more attention to how important physical presence is in communication, and to how my own posture contributes to an interaction. When I am leaning back in my chair, I appear (and often feel) more disengaged; when I lean forward, I can be a little too intense and controlling, but when I am centered and grounded, I can be present and supportive without overwhelming the interaction. The same can be seen in others; look around a meeting and observe how people’s postures reflect their engagement. It’s fascinating stuff that you start to see everywhere after reading this book.

I particularly liked the book’s visualizations of its three leadership competencies.

  • For Inclusiveness (projecting non-verbally that “we are all in this together”), I loved the idea of projecting my circle of personal space well beyond my body to fill the room.
  • For Centered Listening (“the ability to listen for the whole and hear what is being said without taking it personally”), I found the visualization of the words landing in the space between us to be inspiring, to show that the words are not about me and not an attack.
  • For Speaking Up (“speaking one’s truth with clarity and precision, without aggression or collapse”), I loved the visualization of those that support and inspire me (my “posse”) helping me push forward my message with force and compassion through my personal space in the form of a directed triangle.

I found the book’s distinction between Personality and Center to be personally useful, and have started using the Centering Practices whenever I notice myself out of alignment. I also plan to suggest several of the book’s exercises to clients when I feel they could benefit, and may refer them to the book when they question why they need to change their bodily responses to be more effective communicators and leaders.

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