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Leadership impact, influence and presence – an embodied perspective

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Leadership is not simply about what we say. The way we listen and talk, our charisma and our physical presence all impact on how we influence. 


As social animals, making a positive impact on others and being able to effectively influence them is vital - we are all leaders. As a trainer, personal leadership skills are doubly important and a core part of the job - whether I like it or not, people donʼt just listen or not to what I say, but to me as a person.

This article explores the bodily side of impact and influence - while words are of course important, the embodied perspective is less well understood.

If you have ever been around a great leader, wether that be a world-renowned figure, or just a boss, community figure or parent you really admire, you will have experienced their embodied presence. What I mean by this is not some set of crass inauthentic Blairesque body-language techniques but how the person they are comes across in their posture and movement.

"A personʼs embodied presence can impact people in very different manners, and authenticity, awareness and range are central."

When they enter a room, you know it, when they listen you feel heard, when they speak they command respect. Impact and influence is not just about what someone says or the position they hold, but their charisma, gravitas and presence. These "x-factors" are not magic and while some people may be naturals (this usually just means they have had a lot of practice) most of us can benefit from becoming aware of the basics of how leadership is embodied.

It is worth saying that there is not one route to effective leadership presence - Ghandi was not Churchill and vice-versa, yet both were great in their own way. A personʼs embodied presence can impact people in very different manners, and authenticity, awareness and range are central. 

Leadership impact tips

While quick tricks will not build leadership presence Iʼd like to offer some pointers that I have seen make a difference around the world. 

Practice

Establish embodied practices that build the way of being that will create the impact youʼd most like. A practice is a recurrent and conscious activity - anything from hiking, to meditation, to karate, to comedy improvisation would count, the key thing is to choose practices which build a certain disposition. Tai chi and squash can both be practices but will build quite a different leadership presence. What are your practices? 

Basic health

A leaderʼs foundation is excellent physical health. You can not cheat your fundamental biological system. 

Be here, and "in" your body, now

Presence starts with being present, so mindfulness and body awareness is a good foundation for leadership and any embodied techniques one wishes to use.

Learn to ground and centre

"Grounding" is sometimes overcomplicated but just means aligning your posture and relaxing your muscles so your bones bear the weight. Centring, can mean many things, but a good start is to become aware of your centre of mass just below your navel, relax the muscles here and breath deeply so the area goes out slightly as you breath in. Grounded and centred leaders are more compelling across cultures and situations. 

Six directions

Try balancing your posture and attention up and down, left and right and forwards and backwards. Depending on the type of presence you are wishing to build you may need more of one than the other though balance is a good place to start and will engender trust. 

Identify your strengths and weaknesses

We are all have different virtues and identifying how these are embodied is useful. Equally, all strengths have another side and this sometimes needs to be moderated to lead and influence effectively. You may, for example, tend to come forward with lots of energy and enthusiasm which can be very useful and excites others but may not be appropriate when a more considered way of being is called upon.

Lead from your heart

Authenticity, passion and emotional awareness are compelling which is where much training in the area goes wrong. Being aware of the body is essential for emotional intelligence as this is where emotions happen and there is no passion without movement. When a leader is aware of themselves and others physically and emotionally as well as cerebrally, their impact is magnified. Values are not abstract concepts but a lived embodied experience for any effective influencer.

Much of this what Iʼve described here is more easily shown than described and there are numerous free videos on leadership embodiment here. This is a large and easily misunderstood subject and I hope this has served as a clear introduction. It is my passionate belief that what is needed in the world today is not more management theories but better practices and the reclaiming of what was once common sense, that the 90% "below the tie" matters.

Mark Walsh leads business leadership training provider Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK. Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time resilience and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and leaders build impact, influence and presence. Clients include Virgin Atlantic, UNICEF, The Sierra Leonian Army and the University of Sussex.

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