Embodied-Growth Hacking for Leaders

]Ever since René Descartes, in the seventeenth century, separated the mind from what the body does (dualism) — we have, in the West, remained largely dominated by the idea that our mind is distinct — and functions independently from our body. We have as Aposhyan in Natural Intelligence noted, for centuries reduced the experience of our body to a mechanical one. Thankfully this is changing, increasingly in organisations, although much slower in leadership studies.

John Townsend, in Leadership Beyond Reason, has urged leaders to go beyond reason and rationality, and to connect with their values, feelings, and relationships. The underlying premise behind Townsend’s work is that who we are on the inside can determine leadership success more than what we do or what we know.

Townsend is not alone, according to Willis Overton from Temple University, embodiment implies that a leader’s behavior arises from the “embodied person” actively engaged in the world. Therefore, according to Overton, “embodiment” is the integration of perception, thinking, feelings, and desires expressed through a leader’s active engagement and agency.

Thus, the kind of felt relationship to one’s body one has is a precondition for behaviors that result in effective leadership. This implies that the behaviors of leaders, and the way they lead, are directly related to their awareness of, and ability to manage, what is happening within their own bodies. To lead beautifully then, in the words of professor Donna Ladkin, from the School of Management at Cranfield University — is not merely a matter of relying heavily on conceptual models and theories of leadership development. While logic, rationality, and fact gathering are important for leaders, many focus on these objective factors to the exclusion of the subjective world.

As a leader myself, I have realized, often, that one requires far more than logic to achieve sustained success in the ever changing and turbulent business environment of the 21st Century. In my quest for peak performance as a leader and as an entrepreneur I have found five growth hacking principles that have enabled me to DIY my own personal success GAME. Think of these principles as personal growth hacking for peak performance, but with an embodied twist.

‘G’ is For Grounded Thinking

Thinking isn’t bad, but what you focus on can be. Reflecting on past mistakes, or planning for the future are crucial to long term achievement, but when it comes to performance, in the moment, where it matters most, past and future can get you into trouble. When your thoughts are moving into the past or the future, you can easily get caught up in the mental vortex, and spin out of control. Most importantly you lose contact with the present moment, the only moment as a leader you can fully respond with clarity.

The truth is being present is hard work. An example of this is attentiveness, that feeling that someone is truly focused on you. Being attentive, and present with the people that matter most to you, at work or in life is what people want more than praise. This can only be achieved with a person if you are fully present, without judgement. This is no easy task.

How many times have you caught yourself thinking about what you will be doing next, when you should be fully present with the person who is in front of you? How many times have you found yourself planning your response in a conversation, thus leaving you feeling that the interaction was less than authentic?

Grounded thinking has taught me that it is not that thinking is inherently bad, but rather, what one attends too, and focuses on can be. Grounded thinking is developing a subtle awareness of recognizing when you are not fully there with the people that matter most to you. It is about “catching” your thoughts quicker as they drift either into the future, or are held to the past. In that moment, you can interrupt the momentum of your habitual responses, and gently remind yourself to come back to your breath. This subtle technique brings you back to the present. The outcome, a far richer interaction with the people you care about most, and they then leave every interaction with you with a feeling that you truly care about them.

‘A’ is for Attitude Embodied

How you show up as a leader in the world matters more than you ‘think’. Scientists have discovered that some very simple gestures, such as how you shape your mouth, can affect your mental attitude. You can practice a simple exercise easily at home to demonstrate this. Put your face into a smile by turning the edges of your mouth upward. Immediately and automatically, this has an effect on the brain chemicals that make you feel good. This is based on scientific evidence that a particular body posture—in this case, the way the mouth is shaped—has an effect on the chemicals produced in the brain, which then affect how the mind responds. This is a simple, but very effective, way to show how body attitude and state of mind are intimately related.

Take another example of body posture: If you are sitting slumped—or even standing slumped—more than likely that will send a message to the brain that you’re feeling dejected and maybe even depressed. Again, this emphasis how body posture and mind affect each other.

Bottom line, the fact is while our minds and bodies are different, they always go together. That is why it is crucial for leaders to develop a keener sense of what I call their “mind-body interface.” To be poised for real success, we must understand and experience how what goes on in our minds impacts what goes on with our bodies and vice versa. The way you hold your body — the body attitude you display — will not only change how you feel about yourself, but how others perceive you. Better yet, it tells your mind that you are confident too.

‘M’ is for Mindfulness in Action

Mindfulness is a state of being where you are able to just be present without judging the outcome of your performance. It involves not becoming attached to the way you are thinking, or attaching to whatever sensations are are arising in your body, and how you are defining those as emotions. The outcome is the ability to be fully present, which then leads to what I call having a fluid mind. Mindfulness is crucial when dealing with difficult emotions.

Typically people practice mindfulness meditation in a quite room, with candles. However, as Tony Schwartz CEO and founder of The Energy Project, writing in the New York Times, notes — what is needed is mindfulness in action, not what a person can do with their eyes closed. The true test of mindfulness efficacy is the ability for a person to be mindful in the crucible of chaos. This is one of the reason why it is crucial to practice being mindful in the midst of ones work environment, not just sitting on a zafu.

This starts by highlighting times through the day, or common interactions where you are less than mindful. Writing them down, and choosing the least difficult situations as opportunities to practice, will allow a cumulation affect of consistent mindful practice that will ultimately lead to being mindful in action in the most vexing situations. In other words, start small, start with being mindful in situations you know you can be victorious in – so that in time you are able to build a powerful mindful immunity to the most difficult challenges in leadership.

‘E’ is for Exhale

Breathing shouldn’t only be seen as something you do simply to stay alive, but rather, and equally important something you need in order to act. More and more, the medical community is realizing that sympathetic dominance (fear/aggression response) underlies many modern-day maladies, including anxiety and hypertension. While all the variables of the root cause of sympathetic dominance are not completely understood, one root causes is, in fact, sub-optimal breathing.

Correct breathing brings about autonomic nervous system balance, correcting the state of sympathetic over-activity and parasympathetic under activity and its consequences including internal tension, anxiety, and potentially the myriad of other psycho-physiological challenges to health and well being resulting from this imbalance.Learning how to breath that invokes the parasympathetic nervous system is crucial to peak performance in a high pressure situation, where, to often, we simply forget to breath.

As simple as my next advice may sound, this very tool made a massive impact on my ability to go to the places that I feared as a leader and helped me succeed. Being mindful in a highly stressful situation is easier said than done, but what I have taught myself to do is learn to breath. Your breath is one of the most effective links between your mind and your brain, and, therefore, between your mind and your body. Mindfulness of your breath, then, is a great way to center your mind-body and become grounded. The out breath especially tethers you to the present moment.

Try this right now: breath out hard, make sure you can hear your breath and try and think of something at the same time?

Amazing right, for that short time that you are breathing out your mind clears. I always see it as a way to flush my thoughts out. As long as I am focusing on my out breath I find that I am able to quite my mind, but also manage my emotions better.

Now go get your GAME on!

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