An issue on health care gives me the perfect opportunity to address a domain of leadership that gets very little attention. Somatics has to do with things relating to the body. For leaders, this subject is not nearly as arcane as it may seem at first glance. Somatics in leadership can be viewed both internally, in terms of wisdom from and care of the personal body, and externally, as it relates to an ability to relate to the organizational body. Although it might be tempting to focus on organizational issues as a safer topic, I am going to focus on personal somatics.
A number of mainstream business authors have stressed the importance of physical health as critical to leadership. No organism, including a human being, operates at peak efficiency if it is not healthy and rested. In their best-seller, “The Power of Full Engagement,” authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz draw a connection between purposeful self-care and performance. They redefine the primary challenge of leadership as managing energy rather than managing time. No creature can manage energy if it does not get the proper balance of healthy fuel, exercise, rest and rejuvenation.
There is a plethora of research delineating the body’s innate capacity for feeling, intuition and intellectual awareness. This body wisdom is available to us if we do the work to learn how to access it. Sound a little far-fetched? Perhaps too touchy-feely for you? Consider these three examples of somatic learning from coaching clients:
- John, COO at a $60 million service company, begins to realize that he overcommits his staff in executive committee meetings on a regular basis. He does so because it is easier for him than dealing with the conflict in the meetings. With time, John learns that he feels the stress of this overcommitment in the form of a knot between his shoulder blades. As he pays attention, John learns that the knot is evident well before an executive committee discussion that can lead to another over-commitment unfolds. Using this as an early warning system, John steels himself to let the group take on the issue and not just take on the commitment himself unless it truly is appropriate to do so.
- Marie, a partner at a major consulting company, got feedback from her peers that she did not collaborate well. The proverbial not playing well in the sandbox was having a major impact on her performance and the billings for her practice. Marie struggled, trying to understand what was being asked of her, but she simply could not crack the issue mentally. I will never forget the look on her face when I suggested that she take a ballroom dancing class. Marie had a physical experience of the kind of collaboration needed to dance well together. She was able to recognize that same experience in her dealings with clients and partners and, over time, brought it to bear on her internal relationships with very positive results.
- Phil’s direct reports were frustrated. Although he had a strong reputation operationally, Phil’s staff never knew what to expect from him in tougher situations. He seemed to blow with the wind. Phil felt strongly about consensus and did not understand his staff’s request to be clearer and more stable in his point of view. Phil enrolled in a tai chi class and had a physical experience of being stable in the face of attempts to move him from different directions. Phil translated the experience, recognizing when he was not doing the same at work. Today, Phil teaches tai chi to other executives as a somatic practice.
As a society, we are not comfortable with somatics. Even less so in business, where such topics can seem touchy-feely. As managers, we are trained to work in the important mental domains of logic and linear thinking. But logic will not solve all issues. And leadership asks us to bring our entire being to those we lead — head, heart and body.