Real Leaders

How To Lead Without Words

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

How important do you think words are to get your point across in business? Let me surprise you: a lot less than you would imagine. Leadership happens under our words, around them, between them. Leadership is what happens while we’re planning what to say.

The reason is simple: leadership is instinctive to survival. Knowing who is in charge, who is bigger or more powerful in each and every situation you encounter in life is the key to stay alive across the entire animal kingdom. The fact that we modern humans have created a safe everyday habitat for ourselves, in which immediate death threats are mostly postponed, doesn’t change the way our bodies are designed to operate. Our bodies are still mammal animals who need to be included in a pack in order to survive.

This morning I took yet another bright brainy executive out to get feedback from my horses. A prominent lawyer working out of Shanghai for a large American tech company, Irene walks and moves quickly. Determination and focus seem to drive her through most challenges in life. Horses, however, were not impressed by her law degrees, MBAs and varied achievements. They walked all over her in less than a minute.

She spoke of “having a revelation” when we finished the exercise, as she realized how subtle and powerful body language can be. This is what puzzles us today: leadership doesn’t actually happen in our words, but rather somewhere else, in a place where words, numbers and logic are irrelevant. In the part of the brain that continues beneath our neck down to the very tip of our toes. In the feelings, sensations and involuntary contractions that constantly take place inside us.

As Irene approached the horse she felt most comfortable with, he welcomed her attention nudging her arms and happily breathing in her scent. And as soon as he had her where he wanted her, he ignored her and started flirting with me. I proposed Irene go inside the box with this savvy horse, find a space where she was comfortable, and perform a certain massage on his neck. From outside the box we could clearly see the horse invaded her space, ignored her requests to back off, and dominantly stared over her shoulder at what we were doing. Then Irene looked over to me and said “my boss often oversteps, messes around with my teams, creating problems for me”.

Irene’s boss does exactly what our horse did to her. He senses he can intimidate her easily, invading her territory without a second thought, as he looks out only for himself. I helped Irene focus her attention on the physical sensation of intimidation in her own body. Then she breathed deeply to ground and dissolve it, and practiced ways to protect her space with her arms, or her voice, or a look of authority. “But my leadership philosophy is about service”, she said to me. “There’s nothing wrong with that”, I replied, “you still need to be in charge of your teams in order to guide them through danger. You can’t do that if they invade your space and ignore your instructions all the time.”

Of course Irene reasons in such a way that justifies what is happening around her. We all do. And while we’re right, we’re also being manipulated by the brain beneath our neck to play along with a dynamic in which we are not in charge anymore. It’s that wordless brain in our hearts, guts and rest of our bodies who reacts to situations like a mammal animal. Spontaneously and immediately. Our complex network of nerve cells speaks directly to other mammal bodies around us without words and without asking for our permission. Several exercises with another horse showed the exact instant in which Irene doubted herself, a couple steps before reaching an obstacle, because the horse nudged her elbow playfully, or nipped her but! (I really hope her boss doesn’t go this far!)

I bet your sitting there thinking “Oh, this wouldn’t have happened to me. It’s so obvious!” And you’re right. You would have had another different challenge. Your body would have contracted or over reacted at a different instant, in other ways. Irene’s personal history would probably help explain why her body tends to adopt a submissive role to feel safe. Improving her leadership, therefore, depends on her awareness of how this reaction takes place inside her, and her ability to soothe and dissolve the ancient body-driven emotional response which hinders her performance today.

Working with horses and dolphins provides a very powerful mirror to experience what happens in our own bodies as we issue an instruction or guide others in business. They don’t need any words to let us know we’re not convincing. Their bodies react to ours spontaneously and immediately, instinctively choosing to follow us, or rather step above us in hierarchy, for the best reason in the world: survival.

Lead without words. Stop talking endlessly to yourself about what others are doing wrong and start focusing on the sensations, emotions and movements taking place inside your body. Focus your attention, breathe deep and regain fluid flexibility. When you ground your body, you will know what to do. Everybody will follow. Surprise yourself!

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