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2 February 2012

Embodied practices, development, and leadership

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

Several months ago, I posted a blog about my wonderings around the link between adult development and embodied practices.  Now I’ve got eight more months under my belt engaging in my own practice as well as trying to support clients.  Because I’m in the business of helping people to grow and develop, often in the name of becoming better leaders (of themselves and/or of others), I want to know whether these practices can actually help people to grow their capacity to make meaning and deal with complexity and, therefore, (I believe) become capable of leading through more dynamic and complex challenges.  In other words, can embodied (or somatic) practices support the growth of leaders?   I recently took a step back to take another look at what anyone out there is saying on the topic.

At a high level here’s what my reading, discussions, and work with myself and my clients has lead me to as a starting point.

  • Our experiences live not only in our brains, but in all the tissues of our bodies.   If we can learn to notice what our bodies are telling us, we are essentially moving information from implicit to explicit—from subject to object.
  • We learn to notice by being in practices that help us develop an observer—an ability to watch ourselves from an outside perspective.  These practices can be anything from various forms of meditation to movement practices.  Regardless of which specific practices, they will lead to the development of a trained observer more quickly if we are intentional and consistent about them.
  • Having developed an expanded, and more readily available ability to get distance or perspective on ourselves, we can engage in body-based practices to develop the capacity to take more effective action. Through practice, we can develop new muscle memory that allows us to take action that we could not take before.

Ok, great.  So how can any of this help us to be better leaders?  In a way, it seems obvious that if we can become better observers of ourselves and more able to take effective action, we ought to be better able to respond to an ever changing and often complex environment.  I’m pretty much sold on that.  But what are the experts saying?

Richard Strozzi, founder of the Strozzi Institute, talks about the somatic arc of transformation, or how people change though embodied practices.  The “arc” includes somatic awareness (observer), somatic opening (willingness to be open to what your body is telling you) and somatic practices (creating new muscle memory that enables new action).  He uses this method (which I roughly described above) to work with leaders all the time, generally with great results.  But he doesn’t think of it as “developmental” necessarily.

So what are developmentalists saying about mind/body connections?  The answer is “not much,” as far as I can tell.  What little I’ve seen (and I don’t claim to have seen all there is!) was found in three sources— Action Inquiry by Bill Torbert , Leadership Agility by Joiner and Josephs, and ? by Ken Wilbur.  All three of these works mention at least briefly, that there seems to be some correlation between higher orders or meaning making and self-reflective or body-based practices.  Here are a few examples:

  • Ken Wilbur talks about the general alienation of the body at levels prior to Centaur stage of development.  The Centaur boundary represents warring opposition between the ego and the body.  He says “Despite common sense notions to the contrary, doesn’t it seem odd that you identify with only a fraction of your total being?  Isn’t it strange that you call at best one –half of the organism ’you’?” And then he recommends some physical practices that might serve to move us through the warring boundary.
  • Bill Torbert (in Action Inquiry) makes several references to the link between body-based and/or reflective practices and development.  “The first step [in deepening our action-logics] is to begin to recognize how limited our ordinary attention and awareness is.  The second step is to begin exercising our awareness in new ways in the midst of challenging situation.”  Body-based practices are a great way to do that!
  •  Josephs and Joiner (Leadership Agility) say that  the “key difference between levels of awareness at each of the post-heroic levels is the quality of attention,“ and more specifically that “Snergists cultivate a direct, present-centered awareness of their five senses, their physical presence—self-awareness takes on a fresh and immediate quality.   They develop greater awareness of their habitual reactions.”  And the extensive research that formed the backbone of their book revealed that nearly 100% of those who scored as Synergists had some sort of committed awareness/body practice.

And I have my own experience.  Embodied practices have clearly been instrumental in helping me both solidify in a new developmental space toward which I had been on a path for several years and, I believe, possibly launched me toward the beginnings of another.  The blogs entries that follow will provide examples of embodied approaches I’ve tried with myself and my clients (see also this blog)—how they’ve helped, and the questions I’m still exploring.


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