Embodied Leadership by Pete Hamill – Book Review

upright-bookThis post is a review of Pete Hamill’s book, Embodied Leadership: The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership. At just short of 1400 words, this post is longer than usual, but I make no excuses. Stretch your attention span a little. This is an important book covering an important approach to leadership development.

I’ll start by saying that this book is on my ‘must read’ list. Pete has clearly followed a line of research that has strong similarities to mine. This book ‘spoke’ very much to my preferred learning and leadership styles, and my philosophical and ethical leanings.

Readers of this review should note this predisposition to Pete’s research, recommendations and ethics. However, this doesn’t mean I haven’t applied a critical eye. I see missed opportunities in Pete’s writing when he applies personal development practices to the organisation leadership context and, through this, to curing the ills of modern organisations. More of this later.

Let’s start with the key take-aways from this excellent book. For any individual looking to develop their leadership practice, or indeed their wellbeing in general, this book is an excellent summary of tangible exercises and philosophical perspectives that really make a difference. I’ve used all of them at some time and some of them all the time, and they do work.

Embodied Leadership is predicated on the concept of an embodied self. This challenges the concept that our self is entirely situated in the mind, which is itself a product of only our brain’s functioning. The embodied view is that our self is situated in both our minds and our bodies. The argument flows, therefore, that paying attention to both mind and body is necessary for understanding and developing the self.

Pete suggests paying attention to body and mind through a list of practices:

  • Deliberate reading (focused, purposeful, with note taking, daily)
  • Noticing moods (to develop self-awareness)
  • Reading others’ emotions (to build trusting relationships, not for Machiavellian purposes)
  • Centring (keeping your centre of gravity as low as possible, staying ‘grounded’)
  • Creating leadership declarations (similar to, but more in-depth than positive affirmations)
  • Massage or “body work” (paying attention to and relaxing the body)
  • Assessing the “conditioned tendency” (understanding what knocks you off centre and how you then behave)
  • Understanding our “assessment” of others (what these assessments tell us about our self and delivering constructive, trusted feedback as a result)
  • Mindfulness meditation (daily practice of meditation to quiet the mind and tune into one’s breath)
  • Develop an ethical code (a guide for decision making and understanding “ethical compromises that might be presented”)
  • Taking a stand (saying ‘no’ and insisting that one’s voice is heard)These are excellent personal development practices.

As I’ve already indicated, they have all served me well over the years. I’ve written about centering and listed other personal development practices in other posts, some of which overlap with Pete’s, some of which compliment them. I would suggest there is no definitive list. Work with the combination that suits you and change them as appropriate.As a personal development guide this book works very well. However, as a perspective on leadership in the 21st Century and how we might address some of the ills of our modern organisations, I can see missed opportunities.

Let’s start with becoming a master of embodied leadership. Pete shares research on expertise that suggests it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert. In the context of this book, Pete is effectively saying it might take 10,000 hours, or 10 years to become an expert leader. Assuming you are some way along the journey, he states this might mean the average reader has 7 years to go.

This, for me, is where the challenges start to appear in this book. Pete proposes that developing embodied leaders is a solution for organisations wishing to become more ethically led, agile and ultimately more successful. Waiting 7 years isn’t going to cut it with impatient CEO’s and HRD’s who’s average tenures are much shorter than this.

I would also suggest it is not going to cut it with many individuals, impatient to progress their careers. Pete accurately quotes the research on expertise but fails to point out loud and clear that his recommended practices, if utilised diligently, can yield some very useful benefits almost immediately. This has certainly been my experience and would echo the experiences of others I know.

Pete’s case studies do show short-term impact with his coaching of individual leaders. This could be seen as running counter to the 10,000 hours argument stated earlier in the book. Some clarity on short versus long-term gains needs to be made.

As an individual looking for personal development or leadership development practices, don’t be put off. Aim for expertise over the long-term, but also work towards more short-term benefits with this development of a more embodied existence.

For CEO’s or HRD’s looking to change their organisations, Pete pulls together a strong argument for embodied leadership, distributed more evenly across and down the organisation, as a solution for their current challenges. I agree whole heartedly with this argument.

However, developing more embodied leaders individually, or as a talent pool, and waiting for the benefits to simply emerge is a big ask. I don’t think Pete is suggesting this is the approach to take. However, neither does he suggest ways in which organisations might address complexities that might need attention in order for these embodied leaders to be recognised, developed and allowed the freedom to practice differently.

The challenge here is that organisations are both complicated (systems and processes) and complex (social systems). Changing the complicated is now well understood and applied in most organisations through change management practices. Changing the complex is less well understood. This is why it is often done badly, if attempted at all, in most organisations and is the reason most change initiatives fail to realise benefits.

This change in the complex elements of their organisations is where the CEO’s and HRD’s must focus their attention if they are to provide the cultural context in which embodied leaders will better develop and have a lasting positive impact.

Complexity is covered in this book, but it is a short chapter and doesn’t really add value in terms of how to move an organisation’s culture from where the organisation is now to where it might want to be. It is more concerned with how embodied leadership helps individuals deal with increasing complexity.

I can see the argument that creating more embodied leaders as a stand-alone activity might eventually create a tipping point beyond which the organisation as a whole system starts to shift its culture. But this might take 7 or more years according to Pete’s own argument, and tipping points are strongly resisted by existing cultures. What can the CEO or HRD do to reach this tipping point sooner or ensure it isn’t stymied by the status-quo?

Well, first, I repeat my assertion that it doesn’t take 7 years for the effects of practicing embodiment to have an effect. Leaders will be more effective much sooner than this. However, this would be mainly at the individual level. Organisationally, a whole-system approach to influencing culture and changing the way in which mindsets and behaviours are influenced is needed for these more effective leaders to have as big an impact as possible, in as short a timescale as possible.

Pete stops short of suggesting how this whole-system approach to developing the organisation might look. This is probably because it would turn this 250 page book into a series of books. I can’t help thinking though, that one further chapter would have helped the reader looking at embodied leadership from an organisation perspective. I am left wondering which methods from the field of Organisation Development he would recommend or has indeed used successfully in developing embodied leadership at the organisation level as well as at the individual level.

Despite these missed opportunities, I close this post with my earlier declaration: this book is on my ‘must read’ list. Go buy it and put the exercises into practice. If you are looking at this from an organisation perspective and want some support in thinking through how to approach an organisation-wide transformation, then drop Pete a line. I’m sure he would be happy to share his perspectives and experience. As would I.

Hamill, P. (2013) Embodied Leadership: The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership. Kogan Page Limited, London.

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