Leading with Body Awareness

The early trait theories of leadership argued that to be an effective leader you needed to be male, charismatic and tall.  Clearly, this delineation can lead to discriminatory behaviour towards those who are female and short.

The earlier trait theories of leadership have been disproved and there is now a consensus that there is no universal list of traits that researchers can agree on as predictors of leadership ability.

Amanda Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully,  points out that despite these emergent findings, myths still pervade about desirable traits that reinforce leadership viewed according to the male stereotype.  She suggests that women have been harshly judged against these unreal measures and have had to conform to standards of dress and behaviour that are more rigorous than those imposed on men.

Then again, as a female colleague of mine pointed out, some women dress provocatively in a work situation to draw attention to themselves.  As my colleague commented, this draws attention to their sexuality but detracts from perceptions of their competence.   So women are often confronted with a dilemma – conform to unfair standards or dress inappropriately.

Rather than accepting this dilemma, women and men can learn ways to present themselves bodily so that potential followers are not left experiencing discomfort or uncertainty about how to communicate with, or relate to, their leaders.

Increasingly, followers have been shown to prefer characteristics that are described as the soft skills – that is skills associated with emotional intelligence such as empathy, compassion, listening skills, communicating to inspire followers, congruence and creativity.

Through mindfulness, leaders can develop a presence (irrespective of physical height) that conveys a sense of balance and calm.  They can face problems with greater clarity and creativity.  Their very presence can communicate support and generate confidence in others who are faced with difficult situations.

Leaders need to be physically present to their staff so that their positive bodily influence can be experienced first-hand.  They also need to care for themselves bodily by looking after themselves so that they can withstand the stresses of their role but, at the same time, have real concern for the physical welfare of staff.

By building resilience through mindfulness practice, you can communicate non-verbally that they you are in control of yourself and the situation.  Even when you are not conscious of the impact of your demeanour, others take note and are influenced by how you present yourself – your bearing can communicate respect for others, personal confidence and self-awareness.

Somatic meditation is one way for a leader to get in touch with their bodies and their reality.  It enables them to be more conscious of how stress is stored in the body and emitted through physical actions and non-verbal activity.

Amanda also alludes to the research work of Norman Doidge and highlights the mind-body connection and the role of exercise such as yoga and walking in enhancing this connection and improving brain functioning.   In the light of this research and the foregoing discussion, Amanda exhorts leaders to be aware of the role of their bodies in the process of leadership:

Our bodies and physicality in leadership are gateways to important forms of intelligence, to wisdom and mindfulness.  They provide us with ways of noticing and revaluing the present, experiencing the full richness of the people and situations around us.  Physicality is not something to be ignored, suppressed or overcome in leadership, but a means of helping us live and lead more fully.  (p. 129)

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasing aware of how we experience the world through our bodies and how others experience us as leaders through their perceptions of our bodily presence.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of rawpixel on Pixabay

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Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

If you revisit the previous post and listen to Goldie Hawn’s statement about the tools and skills that children are given in MindUP™ , you come to realise that she is creating the foundations for mentally healthy workplaces . As Goldie pointed out, she set about creating a new culture, conducive to world peace, by developing children as future leaders with dignity and humanity.

In their guide, Mental Health at Work, produced by Portner Press, the authors discuss the need to create a workplace culture that is conducive to developing and maintaining mental health in the workplace. What they identify as the elements that go into making a mentally healthy workplace culture align very well with Goldie’s focus and goals.

They also align very closely with the manager development work I have been doing over more than a decade with my colleague, Julie Cork.  The Confident People Management Program that we have been facilitating for over 2,000 managers is a longitudinal, action learning program of four to six months focused on people management skills.

To create a culture that is conducive to mental health in the workplace, requires, fundamentally, an awareness of, and willingness to address, the basic needs of staff.  Staff have three basic needs, (1) tell me what is expected of me, (2) give me honest feedback about how I am doing, and (3) provide me with the resources to meet the expectations of the job.

Job expectations

Clarity around job expectations is particularly critical for creating a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health. Much stress, conflict and mental illness is caused by unclear job expectations which are manifested in role confusion, role ambiguity and/or role overlap.

Communication of expectations should cover both performance expectations and behavioural expectations. Performance expectations, in terms of the quantity and quality of work to be done, have to be reasonable and not excessive. It is okay to establish high expectations as long as you enable negotiation of those expectations and provide the requisite level of support to achieve the desired outcomes.

The other aspect of job expectations is behavioural standards. It is one thing to communicate workplace values, e.g. professionalism, it is another thing to explain these values in behavioural terms so that staff understand what is required of them behaviourally. So for a value like professionalism, a manager would need to ask, “What does professionalism look like behaviourally in our workplace context?” (or, alternatively, “what would be considered unprofessional behaviour in our context?”).

Clarity around job expectations, both performance and behavioural, is a critical first step for a mentally healthy workplace.


An essential component for a workplace culture that is conducive to mental health is regular feedback about performance and behaviour. This involves both positive and corrective feedback.

Positive feedback builds a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. It respects and values their contribution and encourages positivity in the workplace.

Corrective feedback is designed to correct performance/ behaviour so that the staff member can meet the job expectations. If it is provided in a professional manner it can be generate respect – the focus being on the performance/ behaviour, not the person or their personality.

In both forms of feedback, it is important that the feedback is timely, specific, accurate and sincere.


It is unreasonable and damaging to mental health to provide staff with resources that are inadequate to enable them to meet job expectations – this includes the provision of training in both performance and behavioural requirements. In terms of assisting people who have mental health issues, it is important to provide access to independent, external health professionals to give adequate support for the individual involved. What is often overlooked is the need to train managers in how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace – resulting in managers experiencing undue stress and, potentially, burnout.

Listening for understanding

If a manager is to genuinely meet the needs of staff, they have to have skills in active listening. One component of this is empathetic listening skills – the ability to understand the emotions involved for the other person, to empathise with them and to work with them to help alleviate the associated pain where possible.

Being present

Underpinning the above elements of a healthy workplace culture is the capacity of a manager to be really present to their staff.  Listening for understanding, communicating expectations and providing feedback (both positive and corrective), require the manager to be in-the-moment and really present to their staff.

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to create workplace environments conducive to mental health. Kindness and gratitude form part of the emergent skill-set and these, in turn, contribute mental health and happiness, not only for staff but also for the manager.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source:  Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Social Skills – Compassion

Compassion is recognising a person’s pain and suffering and having an active desire to alleviate that pain and suffering.

Dr. James Doty, in his Ted Talk on The Science of Compassion, identifies three components of compassion:

  1. noticing another suffering (realise)
  2. showing empathetic concern (relate)
  3. taking some action to mitigate the pain (relieve)

Hence, compassion differs from empathy in that the emphasis is placed on taking action to redress suffering, not just feeling with and/or for another person.

James Doty suggests that many organisational leaders who seek power and control, lose their capacity to empathise and their willingness to be compassionate.

However, he points out the research in a book by Jane Dutton and Monica  Worline, Awakening Compassion at Work, where the authors show that compassion positively impacts the bottom line.  They contend that the benefits are two-dimensional.  Firstly, trust, cooperation and satisfaction increase; secondly, burnout, turnover and absence decrease.

Shari Storm, in her TED Talk, Building a Compassionate Workplace, maintains that one of the major impediments to developing compassionate organisational leaders and a compassionate workplace, is the metaphors we use to describe work – which become embedded in our language, influences our thinking and shapes our behaviour.  She identifies both the war and sports metaphors as problematic because they promote competition and winning over care and concern.  She suggests that the family as a metaphor for work would open up increased possibilities for nurturing in the workplace.  It would also enable women to flourish and thrive because women would be better able to relate to such a metaphor.

Unfortunately, the sports/ war metaphors tend to be male-centric and feed the desire of men to be seen as “macho”.   What is not easily recognised is that compassion requires courage as well as concern – particularly where you have to break out of the leader stereotypes encapsulated in the sports/war metaphors.

Mo Cheeks, head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, broke the stereotype at the start of the NBA playoff with Dallas Mavericks.  When 13 year old Natalie Gilbert, through nerves, forgot the words when singing the national anthem, Mo came to her aid, put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a helping hand by singing with her (despite not being a very good singer).  The crowd joined in and Mo has been universally praised for his courageous, compassionate action.  This event shows too that compassion is contagious – if only leaders would realise its power to transform organisations.

How can leaders show compassion?

There are multiple ways leaders can demonstrate compassion – what it takes is a compassionate mindset and the courage to act on it.  Here are just a few examples of compassion in action:

  • providing time off to people who experience trauma in the workplace
  • supporting middle level managers who have to lay off staff to deal with the anger and grief involved, as well as the rupture to the social fabric of the organisation
  • educating managers how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, for the sake of the managers as well as for those staff experiencing mental illness
  • providing independent expert support to managers and staff who are experiencing difficulties
  • conducting rituals to express grief at the closure of an organisation or a major transition to a new structure
  • allowing staff time to deal with their negative emotions during major organisational change
  • publicly acknowledging the contribution of long- serving organisational members who are retiring – recognising that they will be experiencing mixed emotions including a sense of loss as well as excitement about their future.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to notice when people are suffering, to show empathetic concern and act courageously to alleviate their suffering.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of WerbeFabrik on Pixabay