Have you ever heard of Wilhelm Reich? If you pride yourself a leader, you certainly should. Reich was the unique rebel who revolutionized the world of twentieth century therapy by bringing the body into the discussion of mental illness. Now well into the twenty-first century, it’s about time we did the same with our leadership thinking. I should warn you: Reich died in jail.
Of course I’m secretly hoping I won’t end up the same way, but you never know what you’re starting when you tease people to think differently, do you? Helping CEOs realize that the shortest path to improving their company’s results is to connect back into their own bodies and “embrace the wild within them” is quite the provocation in our over-intellectualized leadership industry. But what can I say? I’m convinced it’s true!
Reich argued that mental illness couldn’t be cured without involving the body in the process. He thought all mental rigidities were reflected as matching holding patterns or tensions in the body. Much to traditional psychoanalysts’ dismay, Reich touched his patients. He used his thumbs or palms to press on different parts of his clients’ bodies in order to help them become aware of their tension armors. And he talked about sex all the time, which didn’t make anybody feel more comfortable. So I will refrain from writing about sex in leadership discussions. At least for the time being! 😉 I’m leaving it for my next book! Chuckle, chuckle!
But seriously, Reich’s ideas fuelled the development of several schools of therapy that thrive today, such as Alexander Lowen’s Bioenergetic analysis, Fritz Perl’s Gestalt therapy, or Arthur Janov’s Primal therapy. While the mind dwells mostly on thoughts, the body feeds on emotion and lives through movement. Trying to change a person’s thought patterns without looking at his body is limited at best.
Thus, ninety-nine percent of leadership training is simply not enough to achieve real change. It’s just thinking, talking and arguing. Bla,bla,bla! Here’s the thing. If leadership is about getting it right in every situation, then it requires total flexibility from us. If a leader is to walk into an unknown market, build a customer base out of strangers and grow an organizational structure that can counter unprecedented levels of uncertainty, perfect adaptability to each and every change of circumstances is a must in this day and age. The human body is designed to do this. Evolution filtered out all the other technologic versions that couldn’t adapt as well as we did. So improving our leadership is about increasing our flexibility and adaptability. In our minds and in our exquisitely designed bodies.
As much as many gurus will try to convince you that you can learn flexibility from a business case discussion, reading a book or watching somebody else do it, we all know this only leads to needing more books, more coaching, more MBAs…and more money for gurus! Reich’s point is more relevant today than ever before. Our limitations to greater adaptability can be found in our bodies in the form of armors that impede our movement, bury our emotions and restrict our thought processes inside rigid frames of impossibility. CEOs are especially convinced that they know everything there is to know about their situation, having carefully analyzed every nook and cranny in their minds.
Because they are often highly intelligent individuals who work tirelessly, diligently looking up all relevant information, you can be sure they have checked everywhere. The labyrinth of a CEO’s mind, however, has secret doors the CEO can’t see or feel. Opening only one of these doors changes the entire configuration completely, uncovering new solutions to his mental maze.
One of my favorite clients came to a session with a complex decision on his mind. A successful entrepreneur in the eco-fashion industry, he is about to close an important capital increase operation. He brought me piles and piles of financial projections, market studies and business case narratives to help me get up to speed with the complexity of the issue we were to analyze. He makes me laugh! I of course didn’t read a single page. All his documents are projections of the labyrinth he carries in his ambitious, world-conquering mind. I simply asked him to tell me briefly the biggest reason to go ahead with the operation, and the biggest reason to stay put. “Briefly, please!” I insisted.
So he walked me through his elaborate paths of thought as he had already done so many times on his own. As he thought and talked, his body had a parallel conversation with me that I found quite interesting: when he dwelled on the capital increase, the new investors, structural enhancements and market impact, his eyes emptied out, his face skin seemed to detach itself and his body tensed up into a rigid, upright position.
When he described a scenario where he did nothing, however, his entire body seemed to come back to life: Expressive worry in his eyes, twitches and moving wrinkles around each gesture, even a strangling of his voice to control escaping emotion. I didn’t tell him what to do because that’s not my job. What do I know about the eco-fashion industry? I just opened a secret door in the maze of his mind by telling him what I saw in his body. The capital increase operation took him away from his present reality, stealing him entirely out of his body. His mind flew away into oblivion and future possibilities.
Doing nothing kept him connected to the problems he was facing, inside his body, with its unpleasant sensations. My observation was that he ran the risk of complicating his business enormously just to escape the ugliness of now. And if this was true, those problems would only get bigger, and eventually catch up with him. This client actually lost his first company precisely because he increased corporate debt to a point where the global financial crisis ate it alive in minutes when it hit.
In his case, the risk of repeating a well-known pattern of escape into the future is pretty high. I didn’t press my thumb into his chest or ask him about his sex life like Reich may have done. But I did bring his body into the discussion. By telling him what I saw, he became aware of physical sensations and reactions that were always there in his background, hiding behind the secret door he couldn’t discern in his mind’s jungle of thoughts. His entire demeanor relaxed visibly, as he connected the dots and acclimated to a new mental configuration. He looked more tired, sadder, slower.
But he was significantly more connected to reality, his breathing was more ample and his eyes were full of life. He had regained an inch of flexibility lost long, long ago. In the twenty-first century our bodies are more armored up than ever before in human history. We ignore it because we’ve been that way as far back as we can remember, and most people around us are too. But our armors steal away the natural adaptability we were designed for, the flexibility and split-second reactivity to our context that we need in order to lead our organizations successfully.
If you want to lead, you need to let down your guard and dissolve your body’s armor of tension. Just start by paying more attention to what your body feels and does about what you are thinking. Bring it into your discussions with yourself and listen to what it has to say. And in case you’re wondering… Yes.
Your sex life will also improve as you relinquish your armor. But that, my friend, is a whole other story…