It was our seventh one-to-one coaching conversation. We’d been meeting twice a month for a while now, roughly two hours each time. This executive (an early-40s high achiever I’ll call James) seemed acutely alert to the warning signs about the health of his manufacturing company. Looking deeper than financial reports or output efficiency statistics, he recognized evidence of fatigue and disgruntlement in the people around him. But even as he identified these threats to the health of his company, he didn’t seem to hear the alarms blaring within his own body.
Each time we met, he’d make offhand grumblings about fatigue, back problems, and headaches. For him, ibuprofen and caffeine were leadership necessities. Then, after I interviewed key employees, another pattern rose to the surface: when over-taxed and under-slept, James’ leadership suffered. His temper became short, he would cast a negative pall on situations that baffled him, and he became aggressive (and quite public) in expressing each new disappointment. The effect? His people, worn out by his relentless need for someone to blame, stopped providing him the accurate truth about what was really happening in the organization. His loud complaints, instead of being heard, merely seemed to turn his employees deaf and mute.
James needn’t have looked any further than his own body for the cues. His back, his aching head, his insatiable need for rest—this was all a cry for changes to his lifestyle and leadership behavior. Every one of us receives these physical signals, if we only listen. While our minds naturally delete, distort, and generalize information to make the complexity of our worlds easier to digest, our body simply tells it like it is. Once we get waylaid by any of the common triggers of stress, our body speaks up loud and clear.
Being “body wise” can help us lead better. We have an innate somatic intelligence; our physical being echoes every thought, feeling, and action we take. As a result, information from our body is a trustworthy feedback and guidance system, always at our disposal. When we don’t listen to our bodies’ wisdom, we put ourselves and our teams at risk for poor performance and burnout, as in the case of James’ employees who reacted by clamming up.
Some of our bodies’ signals universally scream, “Pay attention!” For instance, James’ body sent him several of the following messages, none of which should be overlooked:
- Scattered thinking, loss of concentration, or poor memory
- Accident proneness or lack of coordination and physical balance
- Feeling perpetually driven by an adrenaline “rush”
- Easily catching the latest bug or repeatedly getting ill
- A relentless low-grade fatigue that sleep doesn’t seem to repair
- Aches and pains, e.g., in the back, muscles, head, or stomach (My personal alarm? When my right shoulder creeps up to my ear!)
Also on the “do not ignore” list are the precursors to a myriad of lifestyle diseases—high levels of cholesterol, cortisol, and blood pressure—which are often amplified by excessive stress.
Of course each person has his or her own interpretations of the body’s warning bells. One leader’s healthy rush of excitement is another’s fatiguing crush of pressure and demands. Steve Sisgold, author of What’s Your Body Telling You?, says that both meanings can be valid. The key is understanding your own body’s wisdom. As Sisgold claims, “Your body has its own intelligence, a natural brilliance that simply knows the deeper truths your mind alone cannot grasp.”
Whatever your body’s stress alarms are, instead of thinking of these alerts as annoying background noise in life, consider them as part of the orchestra of tools you assemble for leading (and living) more productively. To his credit, James was willing to hear this. He learned to perform a body scan, along with a deep breathing practice a few times each day. He reports that this helps him re-center himself, calm his mind, regulate his emotions, and respond better to his body’s cues.
Now that I think of it, my stomach is growling. I consult my internal decoder key and determine that it must be time for a break. Check in right now: What is your body telling you?
Photo by woodleywonderworks