Compassionate Leadership Incorporates Emotions

One of the keys to remaining an effective leader as you rise on the corporate ladder is retaining your ability to empathize. People need to feel seen and heard in order to be happy – this is just as true in the workplace as it is in the home

“The Body Keeps the Score” by Van Der Kolk is a powerful book about the ways that trauma affects the brain and how to reactivate the parts of the brain that effectively “go offline” after a traumatic event. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by trauma, I think you’ll find very useful information in this book about the differences between the speaking/thinking parts of our brains and the feeling/emoting parts. This distinction has profound implications for all of us, but I believe it is essential reading for leaders.

Compassionate leaders understand two key things: 1) the value of empathy, and 2) appropriate ways to support people on an emotional level. These two things together provide infinite applications for success in the workplace and in life. One of the keys to remaining an effective leader as you rise on the corporate ladder is retaining your ability to empathize. People need to feel seen and heard in order to be happy – this is just as true in the workplace as it is in the home. Compassionate leadership that honors people’s emotional needs can be honed further with an understanding of trauma and how it can affect people, especially those who are in recovery from PTSD.

Becoming a self-aware, socially aware leader also requires a deep understanding of the body’ role in our mental health and our communication. This is because we unconsciously express fears and other emotions through our physical postures. Wendy Palmer, who wrote the book, Leadership Embodiment, is an Akido master who teaches the ways that we hold our body communicate certain messages to others while also communicating to our own neural and endocrine systems. We are literally speaking to ourselves and others with our physical postures – often without even knowing it.

image of person kicking
Martial arts fighter silhouette, by liftarn, via, CC0

A compassionate leader also sees what others are communicating physically. According to Van Der Kolk, “up to 90% of human communication occurs in the non-verbal, right-hemisphere realm” of the brain (p. 300, The Body Keeps the Score).

What does trauma teach about leadership embodiment? To recover from trauma, you have to become aware of your body, and aware of your surroundings. Van Der Kolk uses the neuroscience concept of “interoception,” to discuss this form of self-awareness or, “the basic self-sensing ability” (p. 416). He also says, “Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way,” referring to the circumstantial awareness that the medial prefrontal cortex brings to awareness – this means both external and internal circumstances.  That part seems to be the most profound – a holistic self awareness that is neither internal nor external. Both being equally important.

“The Body Keeps the Score” explains that mindfulness practice may also be essential for recovery from PTSD, along with and as an enhancement to practices for gaining physical awareness. Van Der Kolk recommends a number of physical practices that can activate the benefits to the medial prefrontal cortex and therapies such as EMDR. He also describes the way theatre offers a number of great techniques for facing and healing trauma. The commonality between all these approaches is that they do not require the participant to verbalize their trauma, but instead tap into self-awareness.  Trauma recovery all comes down to body awareness and the reintegration of the event – “putting the traumatic event into its proper place in the overall arc of one’s life” (p. 224, The Body Keeps the Score).

In this video clip the author discusses how the way you hold your body affects your emotions: – I queued it up to that small part of his talk, but I highly recommend going back to the beginning of the video and watching it in its entirety. If you are interested in reading the book, as well, I am looking for people who would like to discuss the ideas in-depth. So, let me know if you are interested.  

I believe the physical and emotional dimensions of leadership are neglected in our disembodied societies today. I highly recommend a physical practice for balancing mind, body, and spirit, to individuals in leadership positions and any aspiring leaders out there. I believe physical work in arenas such as theatre may be a key to a new leadership paradigm that puts compassion front and center.

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