Leadership Embodiment

Practitioner perspectives

Kirstin Irving

Change specialist Kirstin Irving reflects with fellow students of leadership embodiment on the personal and professional impacts they have experienced from this approach.  There is general agreement amongst them about the value for themselves and their organisational clients of releasing the wisdom available through the body, rather than relying solely on the cleverness of the head.

Kirstin writes:

I first experienced Wendy Palmer’s embodiment work around four years ago, as part of a two day systems thinking workshop. It had a profound effect on me, partly because I was brought face-to-face with my natural patterns and responses during challenging times, but mostly because I started to understand the full impact of my behaviour on those around me. From then, a centering practice became a regular feature of my preparation for events or moments I anticipated to be stressful or in some way challenging. And recognising the immediacy and power that a few moments of centering can have on feelings and performance, I looked for opportunities to incorporate this into my facilitation and consulting work. Where I have done so, it has been well received, enabling people to feel more capable in the face of incoming demands, and to respond in a more dignified and effective way than they might do otherwise.

Two days this August, spent with Wendy and around 18 others, brought with them the opportunity to enquire of others what their experience of leadership embodiment was. Seven practitioners each volunteered 15 minutes of their time to be interviewed by me during, or subsequent to, the two day workshop. I recorded our conversations, and typed notes, using AudioNote software. This piece, with their kind permission, gives voice to their experiences, and to my own.

I framed the enquiry using four questions: How have people come to this work? What do they most value about it? What do they see as its contribution to organisational life?  Is this an approach to enabling wise action? Here is what I heard.

How did you come to this work?

“It was like an internal click ‘this is the way’”; “I found Wendy and suddenly I had the feeling that I was at home”; “I was just completely hooked”.

There is a real sense of having been ‘got’ by this work. Everyone here has a number of years’ association with leadership embodiment and Wendy’s work; some have experience of somatic work with other teachers. Several started their interest as personal development, which has transitioned into what may be seen as the more ‘hard-edged’ world of organisational work. There is a feeling that this work offers “something more than working from the neck up” – preferable to the more frequent experience of personal or organisational practice operating only, or primarily, at a cognitive level.

Leanne’s path, for example, began with a personal development workshop in the 1990s: 

“The exercise involved sitting in four different seats – north, south, west and east, representing mind, feelings, soul and body. And as you sat in each you had to speak from that perspective… I didn’t have any idea I had a body up until then. It was a life changing experience. The power of sitting in the body seat just transformed me. Basically my body said: ‘you pay me no attention, you treat me like a workhorse’, it was just really angry. Ever since then I’ve started paying attention to it… I think we live in a world where we cognitively know it and we go ‘oh’ and move on, and we never wait for the body to go ‘ah, I get it’. And there’s a huge amount of wisdom in the body…’.

For Debbie, who first experienced somatic work as part of a broader development programme a number of years ago, the shift from a cognitive to an embodied orientation was also significant:

“We were sitting doing some exercises, and I wasn’t quite getting it… It was all on a cognitive level. Then someone said ‘relax the muscles in your thighs, relax your pelvis, relax your abdomen’. I followed this through and I suddenly found myself – not in my head anymore, with that critical voice – I was in the here and now. And things suddenly calmed and stilled.”

John, who has practised a Chinese martial art since the age of 12 or 13, was prompted by feedback from colleagues to explore this further: “People used to say to me I responded differently to most people to stress and challenge… So I started to extract what that was about”.

So, the personal impact caught the attention, but what continues to be of value and sustains my fellow practitioners in their study of leadership embodiment?

What do you most value about it?

People speak both of the practical content — the tools and techniques or practices — and of the manner in which these are approached – as modeled by Wendy in the room.

First, the impact of the practices.

After her first exposure to somatic work, Debbie was encouraged to ‘go and play with it’. She did and quickly experienced a significant difference as a result of paying attention to the centre of her body:

I’d always been what I would have called ‘over promoted’ – and I used to find myself in some very stressful situations… I brought this methodology in to practice in these meetings, because no-one could see what I was doing, so rather than just responding in a sometimes defensive way I’d stop, just take a moment and relax my thighs, relax my pelvis, my abdomen, and then I’d speak. And it felt as though suddenly it was the real me that was speaking… I noticed as well how much calmer I felt… I was engaged in the moment, and I could pay attention to what was going on, rather than thinking, ‘oh my god, what’s going to come next’.”

Kate brings to mind her time, 12 years ago, working in an operational role for the oil industry:

“I was totally in reactive mode, unaware fully of what my own life values, commitments and intentions were. Now, by being aware of my body and being aware of what my intentions are and being focused – taking responsibility through my body for where I’m at – I’m able to sail my own boat rather than to be sailed by others. It has enabled me to be more peaceful and inviting and inclusive of others. To adapt and yet stay myself”.

For Maja, part of the value comes from the notion of building new neural pathways in support of new ways of being:

“We watch and see what’s there – but then the approach offers us solutions. Through practice we can develop our capacity. And even the possibility of being in centre in the middle of muchness, or stress, or things going to hell, or whatever it is, is valuable — the invitation to that being possible, that there is centre…”

For me, and for others, the way of approaching the work is valuable.

I find the enquiry-led approach to learning vital. Instead of the presumption that often comes with didactic approaches, we’re invited to pay attention to what happens normally for us (personality), and what happens when we operate from centre. It’s an active process. As John says, “There’s a saying in Chinese martial arts that is ‘Steal my art’. A teacher can’t give you; you have to steal it from them. You have to observe, be open and attentive to what’s going on.” Paying attention in this way supports us to make choices about whether we respond from ‘personality’ or from ‘centre’.

And as Maja says, “We don’t function from centre all of the time, no-one does….”. That the dysfunction of personality is normalised in this work is important. Says Maja, “Wendy is very clear that ‘this is how it is’. It’s this normalising that creates the setting for learning to happen.”

That the focus in this work is on what is (the dynamics and energetics), rather than the why of what is (the psychodynamics), seems also to be important.

John says:

“The thing that I most value is the compassion. Tempered with a real sense of challenge, because there are both sides of that to Wendy herself and the work she does… this work gives you a very clear sense of all the ways you can mess up and the loops you get in to that don’t get you where you want to be. But it does it in such a way that you smile rather than despair.”

For a number of us, the fact that Wendy’s work quickly and powerfully demonstrates our usual patterns, and juxtaposes the impact of these with the results that arise when operating from centre, is attractive:

“We’re always looking for ways to come in to talk to clients about things that matter – this is another avenue… a very powerful way in”.

“I know that it’s a practice, but Wendy’s work seems to be a quick way in. It seems to open a door – then they can go on and do the hard graft, but it’s the door….”.

For Ann, who does a lot of multi-cultural work, “it offers a way that is beyond language.”

What contribution do you think this approach makes to organisational life?

My own first experience of bringing embodiment into my work was both heartening and unexpected. I shared the centering practice with an area manager. His intention as a result of our time together was to share it with his field engineers, men (mostly) installing and maintaining satellite dishes up and down the land. I hadn’t anticipated this response. But he had identified how this simple practice could equip his engineers to deal more effectively with moment-by-moment challenges, with frustrated, confused and sometimes angry customers, and with their own high and rising volumes of work, conflicting targets and frequent changes in policy and practice. Here was an opportunity for them to feel less stressed, be more productive and genuinely enhance the company’s brand through positive customer experience.

In her coaching work, Michele also reports the centering practice to be of great value to clients, enabling leaders to “respond in a more measured way and a more reflective way than just shooting from the hip”. Their centering practice travels with them, enabling them to be more effective in the face of change and uncertainty, when experiencing anxiety ahead of major presentations, when in conflict with their boss, and when confronted with 425 urgent emails each day in their Inbox.

For Ann, the approach offers, “some clear ways of diagnosing as well as working with, dealing with, overload, building resilience and moving forward.” In her experience it has brought groups to another level in terms of how they communicate; “it’s a way to give permission for the unspeakable to be spoken about.”

John, who used to teach and lead in challenging London schools, now works with teachers struggling to establish themselves in the classroom. He says:

“… there’s a whole set of tools that are possible in terms of people building their presence in the classroom. The problem is that the way we train people does not include those tools because most of the training that teachers get is on the cognitive level. But when you go in to a classroom, the way you show up, your posture, breath, gestures, all of those elements, your energetic openness, those are the things that really make the difference. I’ve come across a lot of teachers who knew what they were supposed to do but when they were in an overwhelming classroom situation their bodies just wouldn’t allow them to do it.”

When I ask what the experience is of teachers encountering this approach for the first time, he says:

“The teachers I’ve worked with find it as a massive relief… What this work allows you to do is say ‘if you stand like this it will have one effect, but if you use your extensor muscles, for example, it will have a completely different impact both on you and on the people who are looking at you’. And that’s very different to saying ‘you’ve got to be more confident’. It gives people a way of moving forward…

“The other side of it is that it suddenly becomes funny and human. There’s a big emphasis in this work on transparency and the teachers of this work are always quite clear about showing that they have their own patterns, as ‘dysfunctional’ as anyone else’s. So, people don’t have to pretend so much and you can begin to work more skilfully with where they’re at, and they begin to relax around their struggle and that really helps open up possibilities.”

“I really would like to see this work flourishing, teachers, school leaders in general getting access to some amazing tools that will open up their experience of both leadership and teaching, and restore some of the aliveness that should be in teaching.”

In what ways might leadership embodiment enable ‘wise practice’ or ‘wisdom in action’?

“Calming ourselves down”, “all our capabilities being present” and “accessing all the different parts of oneself” are related to working from centre and nominated as supportive of wise practice. Foolishness in a variety of guises has impacted recent times: the continuing bad shape of the economy, interconnected issues of sustainability, unacceptable behaviour in organisations. . .  In talking about the role that development professionals have in developing leaders who operate from an ethical, values-based place, Ann says:

We have a responsibility to do something different than just the same-old, same-old, and I think the somatic work can open up discussion spaces, build bridges, help people to develop more quickly.

“I just heard the phrase, ‘the body doesn’t lie’. So if the somatic work helps people work on congruency then perhaps that will get people to examine the lack of congruency in their working lives, or in their decisions or in their organisations… As a coach I think it’s important to have people acknowledge both the difficulty of, and do a good ‘due diligence’ on, making those decisions.”

Closing Thoughts

As for many others, my experience of somatic work has opened up a whole new world that I didn’t know existed. It reminds me of when I learned to scuba dive; how had I not discovered this vast and beautiful underwater world before?!  Why hadn’t anyone told me about it?! And, in relation to my professional practice and somatic work, what implications were there of this ‘not knowing’ for my work and my clients?

Kate said, “When you start to practise it you realise you really are a beginner…”. And this speaks to the challenge in the work, and in learning to do the work. As practitioners we need to create scaffolding for ourselves as we work to build our ‘muscle’ for centred practice. And, as John said, “When you find someone who has mastery you should spend as much time as possible with them.”


Thanks to Wendy and the following people for sharing their experiences and points of view in support of this piece:

  • Kate Bell – somatic coach
  • Maja Bengtson – working with leadership and personal development since 1991
  • Ann Houston Kelley – executive coach
  • Leanne Lowish – executive and team coach, coaching supervisor and change management specialist
  • Debbie Moore – Head of HR and somatic coach
  • Michele Seymour – executive coach, leadership development, consultant
  • John Tuite – coach, trainer, consultant

Wendy Palmer continues to develop and share her work across the world. You can learn more by visiting: http://embodimentinternational.com, and by linking back to her article in the Autumn 2012 issue of e-Organisations and People by clicking here.


The photographs are Kirstin’s own. 

About the author

Kirstin is a consultant and facilitator. She works with changing organisations to help ensure they get the benefits they expect from their good change ideas. She is passionate about people’s voices being heard, gaining clarity where there is none and making sure the time, energy and resource devoted to changing is well spent. She works in support of effective change agency, and authentic leadership.

Kirstin is a Director of change consultancy Irving Allan, and of Irving & Irving Associates, a consultancy specialising in assessment and development. With a commitment to sustainable business she devotes a proportion of her time to the Be The Change Initiative. A Registered and Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Kirstin lives with her husband and three children in Northamptonshire.

Kirstin may be contacted via Email: kirstin@irvingallan.com

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