Back Body Leadership

What imagery or thought comes to mind when you hear that phrase “lead from the back?” Is it taking a back seat? Is it a passive kind of leadership, or perhaps a strong and confident presence? This is the experience that I was honored to facilitate in a dynamic peer learning program created by The Systems Sanctuary called The Systems Sisterhood.

Founders Rachel Sinha and Tatiana Fraser saw the need for a courageous space for women in the work of systems innovation to gather and commune. The common experience being the transitions that woman go through in different stages of their lives and careers, creating an opportunity to uplift and encourage each other along the way. I have not only been able to participate in one of the cohorts but was brought in to speak to the group on the importance of embodiment and its particular relevance in today’s often heady and action-oriented society.

If you are present, you are prepared.

My passion is one of Embodying Change through presence. Stage presence was my introduction to my own embodied practice after a 15 years performance career on Broadway and traveling the world as an actor, dancer, choreographer and movement director. My career ushered in a lot of success, but with this external success also came a creative void or longing to connect deeper to myself and those around me beyond the confines of the performing arts. What was it about a show or performance that moved people? How did the show impact your life, and why? I was aching to move beyond recognition and deeper into a relationship with my creativity and those whom my creativity (or presence) affected.

For the past 2 years, Rachel and I have formed a friendship that has also evolved into a peer coaching of our own. We met at our daughter’s pre-school and instantly found a connection. We have been dear friends and colleagues ever since. She has taught me everything she knows about systems facilitation, design, and specific change theories and frameworks. I have been infusing body wisdom, intuition and the power of presence into her work. Together we have found a deeply transformative and innovative way to move through the often unknown aspects of this particular field of work.

On Thursday, December 20th, I convened with four systems sisterhood cohorts to lead them through an embodiment practice based on the understanding of back body leadership. I recently spent some time in Boston at the Social Presencing Theater. I was drawn to the work of Otto Scharmer (innovator of the presenting institute) and Arawana Hayashi (former dancer/choreographer) when Rachel introduced me to Theory U a few years back. A theory which beautifully invites us to lead from the future as it emerges. I immediately saw this theory and recognized it as the process adage in musical theater. It spoke to me in dance, movement, and metaphor and I was intrigued to learn more about it from an embodied point of view.

The role of embodiment is to make systems visible.

As a dancer, I have always lead with a sense of spatial awareness. My individual body in space and in relation to others. I am aware that I am not a two dimensional being only experiencing what is ahead of me and what my eyes can see. There is a multidimensional awareness of how I exist in space. This is the same for all of us. The work of the Social Presenting Theater breaks it down into 3 bodies or 3 systems of awareness:

  1. Earth body (where life comes from and returns to).

2. Individual body (our physical systems).

3. Social body (a skin that surrounds all of us).

This third body is fascinating in that our individual awareness of the back of our own bodies connects us (like invisible antennas) to this social skin. The very invisible systems that we are so passionate about changing and affecting with our work is now able to become visible or at lease sensed when we tap into this spacial awareness.

With this information in mind, I started the session with a full body scan. Feeling our feet connected to earth body while we sat in our chairs (this can also be practiced laying completely flat on your back on a yoga mat). I then guided the group to witness their breath in their bodies without judgment (this is key). If the breath is high up in the chest or low in the belly, it doesn’t matter as much as witnessing the sensation for exactly what it is. We then began to lengthen the breath in all directions until awareness reached the soles of the feet. From there we scanned the breath from the soles of our feet to the crown of our heads, pausing in areas where we were individually experiencing more sensation.

Sensation is information.

The purpose of embodiment is not to ‘feel good’ or relaxed. The purpose is to FEEL and not to escape to the head where most us in western society feel more comfortable. There is safety, wisdom and an innate knowing in the body that the mind cannot rationalize. Discomfort is a welcome experience, suffering is not. Safety is a basic human right, our comfort is a privilege that for some, needs to be unpacked.

Our desire for comfort at all costs has kept a lot of society from uncomfortable conversations, dialogues or seeking the deeper change that we know is needed within ourselves. Embodiment practices are tools which allow each of us to stay present in this deeply personal and transformations work of systemic change.

After the body scan, I invited the group to feel into the back of their bodies. The back of the head, neck, shoulders, spine, tailbone, and legs. Feeling themselves being held. A sense of leaning back and trusting. Tapping into a resource that would otherwise be missed if we spent all of our time pushing forward out of our own will and determination. Our ancestors, spirit guides and loved ones inhabit this space behind us. They literally have our backs.

After a few moments of silence and reflection, we came back to the group and shared in our experience of the guided meditation. Here are a few key insights which stood out to me:

“ I could feel my breath was mostly in my head.”

“ Thank you. I have been feeling so alone lately and that experience reminded me that I have spirit guides and ancestors behind me, helping me move forward.”

“My back body brought a new awareness of my voice and the truth that I speak. As if I had more access.”

“ I had a visceral reaction to the title of Sharon Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, perhaps it’s time for me to lean back.”

This is just a taste of the collective brilliance shared across the cohorts. I was asking many of them to step out of their comfort zones and was encouraged to see how on board so many were in taking this inner exploration.

Strong back, soft front.

What I am coming to learn about back body leadership is that it is a remembering of what women do best. A strong and supported back with an open and often vulnerable front. A strong back signifies a quiet holding power. A power that will secure the safety of a space, of self and of others at all costs while modeling what true presence and openness look like.

In the lineage of yoga and the energy centers of the body known as the chakras, The fifth chakra vishuddah is the gateway to truth, communication, and creativity. It is housed in the throat. When the front of the neck or throat is overly exercised, a need to dominate with voice and opinion is often embodied. When there is a healthy balance of the back of the throat (representing deep listening), a softer yet effective way of leadership is able to emerge. One that listens with whole being and takes action not out of a need to dominate or react, but one that leads by purpose and example. This is the type of listener and leader that I want to become, not only for my work life but in my parenting, in all of my relationships and how I show up in community with others.

I would like to leave you with this imagery. Picture an ancient Egyptian Queen perched on her throne. Her arms resting on the arms of her majestic seat. She leads by leaning back. Quiet confidence. Back body strong, front body open and soft. The nape of her neck extended as if light was shooting out from the crown of her head. Now you try it. Plant your feet, breathe into the awareness and the strength of your spine. Sit or stand tall knowing that we all (men and women) have the power within us to embody a goddess of this stature and grace.