Embodied leadership

In the first series of articles, Francis Briers offers tips and techniques in embodiment’– the powerful tool helping leaders stay cool in a crisis.

Not unlike mindfulness two or three years ago, or emotional intelligence 10-15 years ago, ‘embodiment’ seems to be a word that is getting more commonly used.  This article will give you a bit of context to this emerging field and explore why it can be so powerful in leadership development.

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Embodiment, sometimes referred to as ‘somatics,’ is a field of study dedicated to exploring and understanding the subjective experience of the body. The prevailing tendency in modern culture is to treat the body objectively – a vehicle to get your brain to meetings, a machine to be made more efficient, or a thing to be made more beautiful. In this way, embodiment is deeply counter-cultural in that it asks us to embrace our body as an integrated part of ourselves. This can feel uncomfortable, just as doing anything unfamiliar can be, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

I will talk about the difference between embodiment and body language (as people often ask the difference) in my next article on authenticity and trust which will be featured in TJ online. For now, we will focus on how embodied awareness can enable us as leaders, trainers, coaches and facilitators to have greater integrity and responsibility.

What is integrity?

Let’s begin with a simple working definition of integrity. Perhaps we can say it is ‘to be congruent in thought and word and deed’: that I say what I think, and do what I say. If I am going to do that then, at a basic level, I need to be in command of my own actions, otherwise I cannot be consistent in doing what I say.

This may sound like an almost ridiculously obvious thing and you may be asking, “Who on earth isn’t in command of their own actions?” Well, there are some examples of medical or psychological conditions that can mean people aren’t entirely in control of themselves in some way, but that is not what I am referring to.

There exist in our bodies certain hard-wired reactions which were evolved to better enable us to deal with physical threats. You may well have heard the phrase ‘fight or flight.’ This is the terminology in psychology for the state we enter when we perceive threat in our environment.

Psychology is being explored more widely in popular culture and the huge growth in study and training on emotional intelligence means that, ‘fight or flight’ and other phrases like Goleman’s ‘amygdala hijack’ have become common currency in organisational conversations about leadership behaviour. However, the deeper process of what goes on in the body is less well understood.

Essentially what goes on is that when certain finely-tuned elements of our nervous system detect a threat, we switch into a different gear. Some systems in our bodies are super-charged while others are suppressed as determined by what is essential and non-essential in a threatening situation. But when this system was evolved, our definition of threat was very specific: “Something is trying to kill me!” Our social evolution has moved faster than our physical evolution, so now if we perceive a social, emotional or intellectual threat, the same hard-wired threat response is triggered, albeit sometimes to a lesser degree.

Threat mode

So, let’s look at what get supressed or relegated to lesser-functioning when we are in threat mode What is most commonly known is that hormones are released into our blood-stream – primarily adrenalin and cortisol – but what is less well known is the following:

  • Immune system is suppressed
  • Digestion is suppressed
  • Certain muscle groups tense ready for action
  • We end up shallow-breathing using about 40 per cent of our full lung capacity
  • Blood thickens
  • Heart rate increases and blood vessels can constrict
  • Our lymph system (which is involved in removing toxins from our bodies) has reduced function
  • The cognitive function of the neocortex (human forebrain involved in rational, creative thought and risk taking) is suppressed.

All of this makes sense in the context of life on the savannah where a primary threat might have been getting savaged by a sabre-toothed tiger but in our modern context, it makes less sense.

Let me ask you a question: do you have a stress-free life? For most of us, I suspect, the answer is no. So, for many of us, a low-level of threat mode will be activated quite a lot of the time. That could mean that some of the above conditions are affecting how you live and work a lot more of the time than you realise. If you carry tension in your muscles (particularly neck and shoulders and lower back and hips), that is often an outward sign of some background threat mode triggering. These things can have other causes, too, but can be useful indicators to be aware of.

However, for most of us, that moment when the boss, with a frown on her face and in a very serious tone, says “Can I have a word?” is likely to trigger the threat response. I’ve done some research and discovered that sabre-toothed tigers didn’t respond well to conflict resolution or negotiation, so it makes perfect sense to suppress the function of the neocortex if tigers are a primary threat! Failing to have access to our clearest and most reasoned thought is not so helpful though when we go into that tricky conversation with our boss and yet that same hard-wired bodily reaction is what we will typically find ourselves having.

Using our minds to try and tell our bodies that the threat is not a physical one does little good, even if we have the presence of mind to do so. The awareness that comes from embodiment training can enable us to spot the warning signs of being triggered into the threat mode earlier, and embodiment can also give us the tools to intervene. If we want to shift our state, to move out of threat mode, working through the body is our best bet.

Have you ever got into an argument and felt like you are three miles down the river and you don’t even remember getting into the boat? When we are triggered into threat mode we’re not in full command of our choices and our integrity is therefore undermined. I may think that I work well with others, I may say that I am a collaborative leader, but when I get triggered my behaviour will tell a another story. Whether we like it or not, many will judge us in that moment as failing to walk our talk.

This goes to the heart of responsibility as well. If we see responsibility as the ability to choose our response (response-ability) rather than to be caught in a knee-jerk reaction, then I’m sure you can see that when we get over-run by the threat mode reaction, responsibility will have gone out of the window.

Three steps to try

If we want to be able to exercise conscious choice then we need the awareness to know when we are triggered and the skills to intervene and shift our embodied state. For this to be easy to do in a moment of crisis takes some dedicated learning but even with a quick, simple technique you can create profound impact if you are willing to practice a little every day. Here is something to try:


Bring attention to the sensation of your breath moving into your body, and out again. Then as you become more aware of this, invite your breath deeper into your body, not pushing or forcing it, just inviting it deeper into your belly and lower back.

This helps to relax your diaphragm which is directly connected to threat mode.


Bring your attention to the ground underneath your feet. Feel the ground supporting your weight. As you feel the support of the ground under your feet, feel that support echo up through your body, imagine your bone structure strong and aligned and your soft tissue, muscles and internal organs, softening and relaxing.

This helps to relax the soles of your feet and some of the other muscular systems which are involved in fast movement and linked to the threat mode.


Relax the centre-line of your body. Relax your brow (above your eyebrows), and if you can’t tell if it’s relaxed or not then scrunch it up and then relax it a couple of times. Relax your tongue – let it sit in the bottom of your mouth. Finally relax your belly. Let your belly soften and hang loose so your breath can really open out into your belly.

This relaxes the core systems, right at the centre of your body which are some of the first involuntary physiological responses involved in threat mode.

These three steps can help you to regulate your embodied state especially if you practice. This kind of practice will also make you more aware of your state, more of the time which can enable you to spot the warning signs of threat mode earlier. If you want to grow your capacity for integrity and responsible action, then your body can be your greatest ally.


About the author

Francis Briers is a senior consultant at DPA Consulting and he can be contacted at Francis.Briers@dpa.consulting.

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