Leadership is as old as human beings are.
Our long-ago ancestors had to work together in order to survive. Harsh circumstances made people dependent on each other and on their cooperation in groups. Successful group interaction involves leadership in whatever form. Individuals and groups that are not fruitful in their collaboration are sifted out through evolution. Leadership is therefore deeply ingrained in our human brains.
Leadership is influencing people to achieve a certain goal. It can be defined as ‘a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task’ (Chemers, 1997). This influence has been studied extensively and in depth in varying and overlapping research areas as evolutionary biology and genetics, behavior ethology, primatology, neuroscience and neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology and anthropology.
Body awareness plays a major role in the embodiment of leadership qualities. ‘There is an obvious and prominent fact about human beings: they have bodies and they are bodies’ (Turner, 1996). Much research on leadership qualities refers to ‘authentic leadership’ as an advantageous and valued feature. ‘It seems that the external actions of authentic leaders cannot be manifest just through words, but that the authentic leader, acting from true convictions, would present a consistent bodily performance’ (Wilhoit, 2012). This largely explains certain nonverbal skills that are often attributed to the elusive characteristic described as charisma.
‘Embodied self-awareness is the ability to pay attention to ourselves, to feel our sensations, emotions, and movements online, in the present moment, without the mediating influence of judgmental thoughts’ (Fogel, 2009).
As a leadership trainer every day I encounter people in authority roles. And time and again I can see that their body awareness often is quite limited, like that of most other people in our contemporary society. Yet the body is vital, whether we are conscious of it or not. If only in interpersonal communication, it has an indispensable position. Research has shown that up to 93% of human communication occurs non-verbally through body language and voice inflection. ‘Man is a multi-sensorial being. Occasionally he verbalizes … and we must seriously examine the implications of the fact that man does not communicate by word alone’ (Birdwhistell, 1970).
Successful leadership is indeed largely determined by effective communication that, in its turn, is to a great extent shaped by nonverbal conditions. Leading people means so much more than just words can contain: ‘language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction’ (Bateson, 1979). ‘A human being is not a black box with one orifice for emitting a chunk of stuff called communication and another for receiving it. And, at the same time, communication is not simply the sum of the bits of information which pass between two people in a given period of time’ (Birdwhistell, 1970).
Our human body plays a crucial role in leadership, just as in human existence on the whole. The body is the beginning and the ending of our being here on earth. It is in the body and through the body that we exist. The ubiquitous language of the body is our native language, our mother tongue. And the very essence of body language is in movement.
‘Movement is a fundamental fact of our existence, so much so that we lose awareness of its pervasive nature’ (Studd & Cox, 2013).
A thousand words leave not
the same impression as does
a single deed.
A leader leads by example, whether he or she intends to
Manfred Kets de Vries
Leadership is in the body
and known through the body.