Getting Back to the Body: Leadership Lessons on Power from the Martial Arts and Somatic Tradition

John Tuite

Why the Body Matters to Leadership

Some twenty plus years ago when I began training as a secondary school teacher, I had a few run-ins with a difficult class or two. There is a particularly sharp anguish that one experiences when a classroom of teenagers disintegrates beneath your hands. But it does compel a healthy desire to study good teachers handling challenging situations or tricky transitions in class. “Okay, that’s how you do it! That’s what you say!” I thought to myself at first. I entered my next classes re-armed. I had the tools I needed; I had seen them work. Opportunities to execute those same instructions soon arrived and I mimicked accurately the borrowed formula whose classroom potency I had seen working. It worked – not so much!

Studying Contraction and Possibility

When our eyes are sensitive and there is more light than we can bear, our pupils contract. In the same way, when we experience overwhelm at work, or when the demands of our life exceed the inner resources we feel available to meet them, we can narrow the aperture of our entire being. We reduce our intake. We organise our self so as to not be touched quite so intensely by the world. This mental and energetic withdrawal is mobilised through patterns of smaller or larger muscular contractions, preparing us for fight, flight or freeze. A raising of the shoulders, a shortening of the breath, a holding in the belly. Each of us has our default pattern, as individual and as universal as a fingerprint. A pattern built to protect the particular arrangement of vulnerabilities in our core. Spend long enough inside this contraction and it becomes the way we make the world familiar and manageable. We can build a home with walls of muscle, an identity spread like a palimpsest across a hidden underlying structure of tension. And having built that identity we naturally find ourself defending it, protecting our very self-constriction.

Recognizing our Patterns

One of the major advantages of somatic work is its emphasis on the element of practice and its ability to work directly with this conditioned contraction of body and awareness, not getting caught up in the particularities of story. We recognise the repetitive nature of our response to incoming stimulation, discover how rooted it is in our own nervous system, and how shockingly independent of context and detail it is. Our attention begins to shift from the drama to our embedded reactions. (To give an example, my own pattern under criticism will be there regardless of the merits, groundedness, or intent of my critic: It starts with “My god, you’re right. I am not good enough!”, followed by, “Actually, you’re being unpleasant, and I don’t like you anymore!”. Followed by mentally trying to win the argument, in order to delay feeling it in my heart, and then worst of all, my guts. That all comes later, after the first few seconds or minutes. I over-engage in my head and shoulders and withdraw in the heart and hips area. This pattern is there beneath whatever social or professional veneer I have constructed. I might once have said I’m not proud of it, but now through somatic work I can catch myself sooner in the cycle, find it amusing and greet it like an old friend who shows up on the doorstep.)

The Body in Somatic Work

There are, of course, many approaches to somatic work today. Working through the body may start with elevated attention to such elements as posture, breath, skeletal alignment, and the tone and patterns of contraction and extension in the muscles. Yet the body is primarily a powerful point of entry and purchase into the mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual domains. Simply put, we work through the body to grow and refine awareness. The ‘body’ stands as gateway to the human being in its fullest, most inclusive sense. The body is the site, ground and vehicle for all our doing, thinking, feeling, and purposing, the tangible field in which these elements are actually negotiated, integrated or fractured according to the unique path of each. The particular pattern of an individual human life unfolds in and through the body.

Ways of Power

Connecting, Aligning, Deepening

In Chinese martial arts we spend a lot of time working on the alignment of the head, spine, hips and feet. This emphasis on the vertical orientation blends us with the natural lines of force between heaven and earth, with the downward pull of gravity and the upward, centrifugal force of the earth’s spin. It is the source of much quiet strength. What’s funny and interesting is what happens when we are put in front of an attacker. Bang goes the vertical orientation, replaced by a rampant horizontal one. Suddenly all our awareness and energy is focused along the horizontal plane, determined to manage the incoming. A good punch does that to you, just like a disastrous quarterly return, or an irate line manager.

Letting Something Through

There can often be an exhaustive wilfulness to leadership. Always pushing the agenda, driving the change, building, accumulating results. Of course this can be very affirming to our sense of our self. All that resistance consolidates the ‘me’-ness of ‘me’. But this individuation in an uncertain world comes with a price. Isolation, exhaustion, and fear linger in the shadows, waiting their moment. It can be easy to forget how we are participating in our own resistance, and to not see what simply wants to grow and emerge. When we are focused on the to do list we can lose sight of the field and its emergent qualities.

Working through the Body and the Spiral of Development

A somatic approach to leadership emphasises taking skilful actions under pressure. Like meditation, it tends to help people at whatever level of development they are at, strengthening their functionality and the healthy aspects of that level. Sometimes it may speed their movement through one level to the next. For example, those at membership levels working with rhythm and the physical awareness of themselves and others in the space may be aided in their co-ordination with and sensitivity to others. They increase their capacity to read and integrate with the membership group. Here, in other words, it will increase convergence and harmony.

The Call: A Stable Centre to Meet the Centrifugal Forces

The world calls to us now urgently.


Palmer, W. (2008). The Intuitive Body. Seattle: Flying Kite Publications.

About the Author


[i] There are of course other elements necessary to teaching and learning such as a school culture and systems that are supportive or invitational to learning. These ‘It’ and ‘We’ elements are not the present focus here.

Founded The Centre for Embodied Wisdom & Clearcircle. Now works as coach & Leadership Embodiment teacher. Also teaches Wuzuquan &b Wuji. Lives in London.

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