Ontological Leadership and Your Body

Whether we are leading, labouring or just plain living, we are often blind to the subtle but powerful role our bodies play in helping us to be resourceful and resilient.

From time to time my colleagues and I get together with fellow ontological practitioners to share insights and best practices in our work. When we last met, we discussed a question often asked by clients: what has paying attention to our body got to do with leadership?

Most of us understand the importance of good nutrition, exercise and fitness, or body language in communication. But the ontological approach puts the body in a much more central position. Our body isn’t just a taxi for carrying around our brain. As Alan Sieler1 says, our body is “the vehicle of our being”. I may be mangling the taxi analogy a little, but your body is as much the driver and navigator of the taxi as your brain is your luggage.

The body plays an overt role in positioning and movement but it is also involved in perception, listening, thinking, speaking and feeling. “Our body is the only place from which we can act” says Sieler. Even thinking relies upon inner processes and our posture affects the flow and development of thoughts. In a recent article I described a few pieces of the growing research that demonstrates this interconnectedness between mind and body. Both somatic and emotional learning are felt experiencesand we can expand our capacity for personal development by adding to our rational, logical and analytical learning.

Typically we are unaware of habitual ways we use our body and may have developed suboptimal or even unhelpful ways of using our body that compromises our effectiveness or even wellbeing. Richard Strozzi-Heckler has spent a lifetime working with leaders in this domain. He says, “Somatics declares the human form as the space in which humans act, relate, think, feel, and express emotions and moods. In this interpretation, the body is the field in which we build trust and intimacy, produce meaningful work, create family, community, and teams.” Without being aware of what is going on, we can manifest to others as negative, insincere, untrustworthy and demotivating.

The ontological methodology provides very practical ways of doing something about this. Leaders can uncover habitual ways of being that are rigid or compressed, or identify postural configurations that contribute to frustration, vulnerability, anxiety or resignation. Leaders who are developing their physiological and postural fluency experience greater mental flexibility and can access more resourceful attitudes in their work. As embodied leaders they show up with greater competency and expanded potential. This ontological approach to personal development supports people to self-manage their thinking and their attitudes but to do this on a foundation built on their postural alignment.

As I have hinted here, the physiological domain is only part of the picture. Attitudes, thinking and mindset are also intricately wrapped in as well. These are addressed in the ontological domains of language and moods. In both of the two programmes shown below, we can take you through new and highly practical ways of applying…
Our body has an integral role in the way we engage with the world. Are you paying attention to how your body is serving you?

For Leaders, it is a pioneering new programme that distils many years of practical application of ontology with leaders in the region.

Ontological Leadership Programme
Date: August 23 – 25, 2018
Time: 9 am – 6 pm Daily
Location: Hong Kong
Fee:  (Standard) HK $14,000; (Early Bird) HK $12,000 extended for one more week

For coaches, learning and development professionals, the OCLiA programme has been run in the region for around 10 years.

Ontological Coaching and Leadership in Action (OCLiA) Programme
Date: November 1 -3, 2018
Time: 9 am – 6 pm Daily
Location: Hong Kong
Fee:  (Standard) HK $14,000; (Early Bird) HK $12,000 payable in full on or before 1 Oct 2018
ICF Approved Coach Education: This workshop is recognised by the International Coach Federation as 22.5 Continuing Coach Education Units (CCEU) in Core Coaching Competencies.
*If you know somebody who might be interested in joining our programmes, please forward this article to them.
1 The ideas in this article are explored in great depth by Alan Sieler, particularly in The Biological and Somatic Basis for Ontological Coaching which is Volume III in the series Coaching to the Human Soul, Ontological Coaching and Deep Change.

Why The Body Matters For Change

By Jeremy Stunt

I regularly work with people who want to be more resourceful and resilient at coping with change and uncertainty. As an ontological coaching practitioner I do this by helping my clients explore how they are engaging with their challenges in a combination of three areas: their language, their moods and emotions, and their physiology.

We can usually see how our language, thoughts, attitudes and feelings can impact how we are dealing with issues. But the relevance of our body and physiology is more subtle especially as many of us have grown up with the view that the mind is wholly separate from the body.

Almost 10 years ago as I began to transition from a career in banking to become a self-employed coach, the ontological methodology helped (and continues to help) me as both a learner and a practitioner with my clients. The impact was so profound that my mission became how to bring the benefits of this approach to others.

But I found it hard to recognise the role of the body in learning. And as I began coaching lawyers, bankers and engineers I found I wasn’t doing a very good job of helping others to see the relevance of the somatic domain. How do you help someone make the connections between mood, posture and performance in the workplace?

One of my personal barriers to learning was a reluctance to be an experiential learner. Some of us find it hard to just try something to see if it works; we may feel the need for a “base level” of theoretical evidence before being comfortable enough to engage with a particular subject. It wasn’t easy for me to “just do it”.

My natural curiosity about the workings of the human mind and body led to me explore connections between the ontological domains of language, mood and physiology. Some of what I found helped me to be more confident at trying new things with myself and with my clients. Now I’m much better now as an experiential learner and at encouraging my clients to try things too.

Those of you reading who have been coached by me to practice walking the street from a body of curiosity and ambition know what I am talking about. But if you are grappling with change and uncertainty and need some convincing about the connection between mind and body, you may wish to check out the list of research articles below that I believe shows why we must not neglect the domain of the body.

Physiology is intricately connected with our moods, the way we communicate and how we show up by embodying behaviour. An ontological awareness can bring powerful insights in this somatic domain. The body matters for change.


The list of articles:

Physiology and the domain of the body

1. Act like you’re helpless and you’ll be helpless
A study has revealed that subjects who had been temporarily placed in a slumped, depressed physical posture later appeared to develop helplessness more readily, as assessed by their lack of persistence while solving a frustrating task, than did subjects who had been placed in an expansive, upright posture. 

Riskind J. H. and Gotay C. C. (1982), “Physical Posture: Could It Have Regulatory or Feedback Effects on Motivation and Emotion?” Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1982

2. Sit up straight and you’ll have a more positive mood
A study has shown that posing in positive, upright postures leads individuals to rate themselves higher in leadership than posing in negative, slouched postures.

Arnette S. L. and Pettijohn II T.F. (2012), “The Effects of Posture on Self-Perceived Leadership.” International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 3 No. 14

3. How confident are we that we are right about something? It may depend on our posture.
Researchers have found that people who sit up straight are more likely to have greater confidence in their own thoughts compared to those who were slumped over their desks. In an experiment, participants with upright postures had more confidence in their own thoughts, whether those thoughts were positive or negative. We may think that our confidence is comes from our own thoughts but actually our posture affects how much we believe in what we’re thinking. In essence, our attitudes are embodied.

Briñol P., Petty R. and Wagner B. (2009), “Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach.” European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 6, pages 1053–1064, October 2009

4. Your body contains your memory
Research shows that people will be quicker at remembering autobiographical events when their body positions during retrieval are similar to the body positions in the original events as compared to when their body position was incongruent. This is embodied cognition.

Dijkstra K., Kaschak M.P. and Zwaan R. A. (2007), “Body posture facilitates retrieval of autobiographical memories.” Cognition, vol. 102(1), Jan 2007, 139-149

5. Folding your arms stops you from giving in
In an experiment, inducing participants to cross their arms led to greater persistence on an unsolvable anagram. A second experiment revealed that arm crossing led to better performance on solvable anagrams, and that this effect was mediated by greater persistence.

Friedman R. and Elliot A. J. (2008), “The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance.” European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 38, 449–461

6. Posture impacts how we are empowered to act independently of our actual hierarchical position
Experiments have shown that whether people are in high- or low-power roles, it is their posture – expansive (wide open and tall) or constricted – that affects the implicit activation of power and the taking of action. Your role has a stronger effect than your posture on your sense of power but posture has a larger effect on actual action. The research is described in The Economist.

Huang, L. Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guilory, L. E. (2011). “Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?” Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.

7. High-power posing changes your neurochemistry
Posing for just one minute in a high-power nonverbal display (expansive posture) as opposed to a low-power nonverbal display (constrictive posture) causes neuroendocrine and behavioural changes for both men and women. High-power poses lead to elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibit the opposite pattern. Embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioural choices. Read more about the experiment.

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., Yap, A. J. (2010). “Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.” Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.

8. Grin and bear it: faking a smile, consistently and measurably elevates our moods
Participants in an experiment who held a pencil between their teeth thereby facilitating the muscles associated with smiling (without them posing a smiling face) typically found more humour in cartoons presented to them compared to the participants who held a pen with their lips to inhibit muscles associated with smiling. Participants who could not smile rated the cartoons as less funny.

Strack, F., Martin, L.L., & Stepper, S. (1988). “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768–777.

9. Checking your email? Don’t forget to breathe!
A research project has shown that when people read email, their breathing patterns can change. 80% of the people in the project appeared to have email apnoea – they held their breath or breathed shallowly. Holding your breath puts your body in “fight or flight” mode and also contributes to stress-related diseases because it upsets the body’s balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is particularly important for regulating the body’s immune system but also has a role to play in learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain and depression. Read more.

10. Chest beating reduces anxiety prior to public speaking
It has been said that if we beat (or tap firmly) our chest we will generate additional testosterone in our body and this will take several minutes to dissipate. So if you are feeling nervous about giving a speech in public, then lightly beating your chest (off stage!) will help calm your nerves and increase your self-confidence at the beginning of your speech.

11. If you tense your muscles, you can strengthen your willpower
Our bodies can with willpower and to facilitate the self-regulation essential for the attainment of long-term goals. Tensing your muscles can help firm willpower and firmed willpower facilitates your ability to withstand immediate pain, overcome tempting food, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided doing so is seen as providing long term benefits.

Hung, I. W. & Labroo, A. (2011). “From firm muscles to firm willpower: Understanding the role of embodied cognition in self-regulation.” Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1046-1064.

12. Washing your hands impacts how you feel about decisions you’ve made
Physical hand cleansing changes how an individual regards a decision they have just made. In particular it removes the need to justify decisions. Not only does the physical act of washing one’s hands ease the guilt we feel about past unethical deeds but it seems that the act also removes our natural inclination to validate even trivial past decisions. So if you’re having a hard time grappling with a decision you’ve just made, try washing your hands. Here is a description of an experiment.

Lee, S. and Schwarz N. (2010), “Washing Away Postdecisional Dissonance,” Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, p. 709.

Discover the Ontological Approach with Alan Sieler, the World Leader in Ontological Coaching

Join our evening talk with Alan to experience our next Ontological Coaching and Leadership Showcase.
During the evening, we will explore what is special about this approach to coaching and leadership. Past participants in the Ontological Coaching and Leadership in Action (OCLiA) will share their experience and learning from attending the programme. Previously some of the key observations from attendees have explored:

  • How the ontological approach helps participants gain a deeper awareness of how they show up in their respective domains of language, mood and physiology. This creates new insights about the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others
  • What the programme provides in terms of practical tools and the insight into how to use them, their interconnectivity and in what different situations they can be used
  • How learning to be observant in the moment in ways that were not available before to them previously, allows different choices to be made and new outcomes to be achieved


Also attending will be Jeremy and Oliver who will lead the 3-day OCLiA programme in Hong Kong . They will be sharing their experiences of the ontological approach to coaching and leadership, along with the value and depth of learning gained through attending this world-class programme. To help build on the highlighted value of the learning network, we will be announcing launching date of the ontological coaching evening learning opportunities for past participants in the programmes.