Jaume Gallifa, MBA


Somatic Leadership Strengths

In a previous post we described the integrative dimensions of sustainable leadership. In this post we look deeper into how to develop sustainable leadership through the body.

About Somatics and Flourishing

The word « somatic » comes from the Greek word « sōmatikos », which means « of the body ». Thus, somatic means relating to the body or « soma », in Greek, as distinct from the mind, or conscious and unconscious « psyche », in Greek, or « anima », in Latin.

Somatics refers to practices that use body-mind connections to increase bodily awareness, hold on to experiences in the body, and use them as therapeutic methods, as well as to increase resilience, transform and flourishing.

Yoga, breathing, grounding exercises, qi gong, and meditation are somatic exercises. The famous Gatha from Thich Nhat Hanh: « Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. » is an example of a somatic exercise and ancient meditation method (Nath Hanh, 1990; 2009/2022).

In recent years, evidence has begun to accumulate as to the neurological, endocrine, immune, and psychological impact of these practices, their clinical efficacy, and in some cases their underlying mechanisms (See: Somatic and Bodymind Approaches to Resilience, in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience for a collection of 18 scientific articles exploring this subject).

About Leadership and Self-Leadership

« Leadership is a process of influence for directing behavior toward accomplishing goals. » (Neck, Manz & Houghton, 2020). From a process point of view, leadership is about influence and positive impact.

Leadership is also a universally recognized character strength that can be learned, developed and generated (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).

To lead others, we must first be able to lead ourselves and learn how to effectively utilize shared leadership (Pearce & Manz, 2005). Transposing the leadership definition above with a positive psychology perspective, self-leadership means influencing and directing ourselves to achieve our transformational and flourishing growth intentions. In fact, we all lead ourselves – Not always effectively.

About Character Strengths

After about 5 years of research, Peterson & Seligman (2004) proposed a universal classification of virtues and character strengths, the so-called VIA Classification (VIA meaning Values In Action). In total, 24 strengths of character clustered around 6 virtue categories: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson & Park, 2009).

The VIA Institute on Character proposes a character strengths assessment that describes the character strengths profile of the individual surveyed. The VIA Survey provides activities and tips on how and when to use the strengths, so to increase well-being, achieve more at work, in relationships, working through important life changes, or diminish stress (Niemiec, 2019).

Flourishing Strengths

From the very beginning of the positive psychology discipline, Seligman (2002) defined happiness and well-being interchangeably as the goal of the whole new enterprise. Seligman (2011) identified a certain number of well-being components, that he defined under the flourishing construct term, which includes Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA), as well as some of the following components: self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, and self-determination.

Recent research conducted at the University of Zurich shows the relationship between the cultivation of character strengths with mindfulness somatic practices, and the development of the different flourishing components (Wagner et al., 2020).

Psychosomatic Flourishing

Quite recently, a second wave of the positive psychology discipline started to pay attention to the very foundation of the psyche: the body. The point is that, just as the mind can influence the body, the body can have a reciprocal effect on the mind (Hefferon, 2013). This should not come as a surprise to somatics therapy practitioners (Payne, Levine & Crane-Godreau, 2015), and those knowledgeable of the ancient Buddhist Psychology (Nath Hanh, 2006), for whom body and mind are not two separate entities and Zen practitioners.

Leadership Strengths

Leadership literature speaks about many qualities, or strengths, that make a difference in the new age of human organizations. According to leadership scholarship, successful and sustainable leaders should:

  • Be grounded (Rosen, 2013) and humble (Schein & Schein, 2018/2022),
  • Navigate through challenges with resilience, guiding others through change with courage and conviction, so organizations do not only have the capacity to endure but get stronger (Southwick et al., 2017),
  • Be able to mobilize, focus, and sustain positive energy in oneself and others (Cameron, 2018),
  • Show compassionated wisdom, humanity, and presence (West, 2021),
  • Be authentic with purpose and passion, values and behaviors, heart and compassion, relationships and connections, as well as self-discipline and consistency (George, 2003),
  • Develop emotional intelligence with integrative self-awareness, social and system awareness for gathering information, developing insight, and thereby facilitating well-being and adaptation, strategic solution focus with self-regulation, and positive outlook (Goleman et al., 2003/2013), and
  • Promoting creativity and offering vision and perspective (Barrett, 1998).

Embodied Leadership Strengths

Embodiment has different dimensions: perceived body sensations, or interoception, attention quality, attitude, and integration (Mehling et al., 2009). Somatic practices develop the ability to integrate body emotions, attention, and social awareness (Siegel, 2010), which are the very foundation of all leadership competencies (Goleman et al., 2013). In other words, leadership can only be embodied.

In fact, each cell of our body has a great deal of leadership. Individual cells scale their humble homeostatic competencies toward remarkable examples of problem-solving, goal and solution orientation, memory, creativity, agency, communication, and collaboration capabilities (Lagasse & Levin, 2023).

Our bodies have ways of expressing energy, sensations, emotions, movement, vibrations, impulses, and volition. These expressions are conditioned, often manifesting unconscious reaction tendencies (e.g., shrinker, defender, intellectual, activist), that eventually are rationalized (Strozzi-Heckler, 1984/1997; 2014).

Like Strozzi-Heckler, van der Kolk (2015) and others (Walsh, 2021) have shown, not only how to be with the body, but also how to work through the body.

Thus, the following question: can we develop leadership competencies through the body to discover who we are, and how to develop leadership qualities, in life? Can we generate grounded attention and focus, humility, resilience, energy, compassion, authenticity, emotional intelligence, and perspective through the body? Could somatics be a path for transformation, flourishing, and sustainable leadership? This is the topic of our next Flourishing Circle gathering.


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