04/08/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Deal with Stress, Maintain Presence and Deliver Strong Leadership

Heart and head. You don't usually hear those terms together in the business world. Yet according to Harvard Business Review, you need both to be a successful leader. I couldn't agree more.

Tell Me and I'll Forget...
I didn't always think that leaders needed both the head and the heart. Growing up in an academic family, it was all about the head and how smart and strategic I was. Yet, something always felt like it was missing. In hindsight, I now know that I am an experiential learner, which means that I learn and retain knowledge best when I am using my hands and body as part of the learning process. You could teach me something in a conversation and I might remember it; I could read about it and learn more. However, if I actually use my hands to learn it by practicing on my own, I then became more proficient in the skill. When I understood this, I realized I needed to use my body in the learning process, if I wanted to understand things at a deeper level.


Learning and Leadership Is in Our Bodies
I took this one step further at the Stozzi Institute, where I saw how learning and leadership is literally in our bodies... how we carry ourselves, walk and talk. I use this type of somatic work in my coaching to help my clients see how they can unlock their leadership by incorporating their bodies and hearts. But how do we do this without it feeling like a therapy session?

One way is to manage amygdala hijacks through our breathing and body presence. An amygdala hijack is a primal reaction to stress that cannot be stopped, otherwise known as our fight, flight or freeze mode. When this happens, the amygdala part of the brain kicks in and says "I have to run away," so it pumps oxygen to the heart, allowing the legs to move faster. With all that oxygen redirected to the heart, there is literally less oxygen in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls our judgement and rational thoughts. Further, the amydgala and prefrontal cortex have an inverse relationship -- activate the amydgala with blood and oxygen and there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. It is like losing 10 to 15 IQ points temporarily. This process makes it hard to think or make clear decisions. Understanding this process however, is helpful for managing it.

Daniel Goleman, the emotional intelligence guru, explains that the brain is basically an elegant machine for survival. It turns out that when it came to mammals, we needed a brain that registers emotion because emotions in evolution have the primary survival function. I highly recommend watching Goleman speak about emotional intelligence and the brain.

Somatic Coaching Can Maintain Leadership Presence
No one can stop that bodily reaction. However, by using somatic coaching, leaders can shorten the amygdala hijack and maintain leadership presence by learning breathing and grounding techniques.

Here are some basic ways to use somatics as a tool for maintaining an effective leadership presence:

  • Count to ten before speaking, like our grandmothers always said, to allow the oxygen to flow back to your brain.
  • Place your feet flat on the ground and palms flat on a surface, to ground yourself better, which will slow the heart rate and allow oxygen to flow back to the brain. Is this a woo-woo technique? Actually, oxygen is so important that it is often referred to as the fifth vital sign, in addition to body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Considering that the brain uses about three times as much oxygen as muscles in the body do, we can understand how important deep breathing is for brain function. This is a scientifically proven process that shows how somatic coaching can help leaders become more transformative.
  • Examine the walking process. You can tell alot about a person by the way they walk. I used to always lean slightly forward bouncing on my toes when I walked, as if I was always eager to get to the next thing. However, that physical carriage didn't allow me to have a full presence when I walked into a room. By pushing my shoulders down, tilting my back straighter and walking on a fully flat foot, I was able to align my spine and body, causing less stress on my back. In other words, changing my posture and walk through somatics gave my head more oxygen to think clearly. Aligning my head, heart and body made me a better leader and manager.

You may already use somatic techniques unknowingly to deal with stress, maintain presence, and deliver strong leadership with both your head and your heart. What do you do as a fully engaged leader? Do you have any of your own somatic techniques that have improved your leadership? Tell us in the comment section below, send me an email or find me on Twitter. I'd love to connect with you.