The Added Value of Embodied Leadership

There is a growing evidence-base for embodied training. Let’s now take a look at research investigating the biological basis of effective leadership.

Combining power and connection optimizes leadership performance

Power posing expert Amy Cuddy beautifully summarizes the implications of these findings on neuroscience of embodiment for effective leadership in the article “Connect, then lead”:

“A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals—a nod, a smile, an open gesture—can show people that you’re pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns.”

Stress-induced “amygdala hijacks” by our reptilian brain

The above may seem like common-sense to many of us but as the old saying goes “Just because it’s common-sense doesn’t mean it’s common practice.” Under pressure we are even more likely to forget even the most basic things. For optimal performance our physiological and psychological state is very important. If we are too stressed or reactive, our neocortex – the part of our brain capable of creative thinking, positive risk-taking and self-reflection – goes “off-line”. We suffer from what is called an amygdala hijack in which a lower part of our brain, also known as the reptilian brain, takes over for our safety. In this state we are ego-centric and not able to give others a sense of connection. The well-known survival patterns fight, flight, and freeze kick in: stage fright and forgetting your point when the CEO suddenly turns his attention on you is an example of freezing. Your angry defensiveness when challenged in a meeting is a fight response. This is an unconscious and involuntary process. Our higher functions are often still aware, giving us an excruciatingly frustrating experience where we are aware of what we’re doing, but we can’t stop it.

Conquering amygdala hijack

Here we find one of the greatest benefits of applying embodiment in organisations. We can learn to recognise, prevent and recover from an amygdala hijack. Because the higher brain functions are often powerless our best chance for learning to recover is using embodiment practices where we shift our state in the body and allow this to influence brain function. During the hijack we can use deep breathing, focused muscle relaxation, and a rehearsed statement to self about the bigger picture. In Leadership Embodiment “centering” is the basic practice for achieving exactly this. When we are centered, we can offer the best of ourselves to the situation and make a bigger contribution.

To reduce the chances of getting off-centre, self-care in all its forms will help us: exercise, diet, relaxation, meditation. Mindfulness practice can help to raise the threshold of the amygdala hijack, thereby increasing the chances of functioning optimally more of the time.

Powerful poses enhance performance

Amy Cuddy has a famous piece of research which she speaks about in a TED talk. She found that standing or sitting in a powerful pose for two minutes influences hormone levels in the bloodstream subsequently influencing the way we feel and our performance for instance in a job interview. “High power posers performed better and were more likely to be chosen for hire” due to their presentation quality (e.g., captivating, confident).

Testosterone plays a role in both men and women and is known to reduce fear in humans. “High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.”

This work is often referred to as relating to body language but the participants were not taught to adjust their body language in the interview situation, they stood or sat differently for 2 minutes beforehand. They shifted their state and that state improved their performance.

A sense of connection and oxytocin

Another important hormone is oxytocin. Oxytocin and possibly endorphins increase trust and a sense of connection. Oxytocin also has an anti-stress and relaxation effect. A way to increase oxytocin levels is to do “[…] self-massage, an activity that has been shown to lead to secretion of the hormone oxytocin, and the calm-and-connection response, which results in attenuation of arousal and stress levels.”

While this could be difficult to apply in the midst of a board meeting it is a simple and free method of self-care that can be applied in a quiet moment and could improve your performance by making you a better connecter – and therefore a better leader – to draw inspiration from Cuddy’s article ‘Connect, then lead’.

Read the full article as published in the Embodiment Quarterly journal.