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Bringing the Body Into Leadership
Some years ago, I spent time with aikido master Richard Strozzi-Heckler at his dojo in the magnificent hills between Petaluma and Bodega Bay. He gave me masterful instruction– not so much in aikido as in the art of cultivating self-awareness by using the body. I’ve since come to believe that this is the most effective method for developing a persuasive and grounded leadership presence.
Richard was then delivering regular programs in what he called embodied leadership to corporate, non-profit and military leaders. He worked both in his serene training hall and at various corporate headquarters, community centers and military bases around the world.
Richard's captivating presence and hands-on, physically active approach contrasted with the mostly talk-centered leadership training sessions I’d attended–– and, to be honest, had often delivered. He himself was a study in contrasts. He’d grown up on military bases in a culture that prized toughness and had been a competitive athlete, even making it to the Olympics. He’d been a Marine but also spent the 70s exploring the human potential movement in California. As a practitioner of martial arts, primarily judo, since age 14, he’d fallen under the spell of aikido as he matured because of the non-competitive, indeed collaborative nature of the art, with its emphasis on finding harmony and moving together.
Now he was bringing a lifetime of immersion in physical practices to people who mostly sat behind desks in organizations that defined leadership by intellectual models or as manifestations of a kind of dominance that’s antithetical to the spirit of aikido.
“Your somatic being has to support your message,” Richard told us. “If it’s not aligned with your words, people won’t believe you. You can’t say ‘trust me’ and then look or lean away. Only by embodying our commitments can we earn trust.”
He then led us through a series of exercises in which we performed standing, walking or as part of a sequence of movements. All were deceptively simple and very hard to maintain. We practiced connecting with others using uninterrupted eye contact while resting our hand on their chests, which often felt uncomfortable. We spoke our commitments aloud while striding about the dojo. Participants were asked to assess how our actions felt to them: whether our body language aligned with our words, whether we seemed to move from a firm and grounded center, whether we appeared to believe what we said, whether we inspired trust.
Over the course of the week, listening to others’ responses helped us see how our physical presence supported or undermined our words and our intentions. The upshot, participants agreed, was a startling increase in self-awareness, along with a visceral understanding of how this could serve our ability to develop a calm and authoritative presence.
I’m glad that self-awareness is now viewed as essential leadership behavior, a big change from years past. But some of the self-awareness exercises I’ve been exposed to at conferences and events in recent years leave out the somatic element, which of course is key to how people experience and perceive us. It’s not enough to be self-aware in our heads. We need to enlist our bodies in conveying our intention and putting weight and conviction behind our words. Richard showed me how that is done.
You can read more about what I learned during my visit with Richard in the article I wrote about it, here.