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How would you describe physical intelligence?

There’s a wisdom inside the body that’s speaking to us all the time.

Our awareness of what is going on inside our bodies dictates how we react to stimuli and decide what action to take. If we tune into the body’s complexity, we can pick up clues to how to live life that we may have trouble detecting in the normal run of things. This makes for better leadership in complex times because we can better sense what is required of us.

And we also need to be fit for leadership, because many of those clues come from neuronal systems – or brains – that, remarkably, exist in other parts of our body other than our head! For example, what is known as the ‘enteric brain’ – a bunch of independent neurons in our gut – provides us with information about our mood, confidence, value and self-worth.

Changes in our gut’s neurochemistry can make us doubt ourselves or feel psychologically unsafe. If we know how to boost our chemistry it can grant us feelings of competence that enable us to determine that we’re in a healthy leadership space and can effectively read situations that involve others. And that is just the start.

Physical intelligence is essentially the process of looking at our behaviour through the lens of neurochemistry, so that we can upgrade how we think, feel and behave. We don’t have to be scientists to understand how neurotransmitters impact on areas such as motivation, how willing we are to build trust with our colleagues and how we can support ourselves to be confident when faced with high-risk, disruptive leadership scenarios.

One key research field I’m involved in as part of my doctorate is the link between personal and corporate agility, and how that’s affected when we’re in a chaotic, rather than coherent, neurophysiological state. We need a whole series of better ways to understand the current leadership context, and it has to start with ourselves and our own, personal sustainability.

With all those points in mind – plus the work that my business has done with senior leaders all over the world – my colleagues and I have devised a curriculum for physical intelligence based upon four elements:

  1. Strength Our mental and emotional capabilities, expressed in our ability to be risk tolerant and confident, and to have a clear and centred cognitive function – even if there are numerous things changing around us. This element is largely adrenal.
  2. Flexibility This is all about agility and creativity – our scope to change how we think and feel in light of other people’s influence, and our ability to collaborate. Flexibility’s chemical basis is the interaction between serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and a natural, performance-enhancing steroid called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
  3. Resilience Both during and after COVID, wellbeing experts were quite didactic about resilience in terms of recommended sleeping habits, food intake and so on. But we prefer to highlight the need for a personalised approach to human sustainability that acknowledges differences and finds out what’s right for specific individuals.
  4. Endurance We need a system that will provide us with the stamina and energy required to move into a future we can imagine as both positive and achievable. That means we must be aware of the demands we will place on our bodies and brains and make provision for what it will take to get there.

How can understanding those concepts help leaders?

The ways in which we move and breathe have a profound influence on our body and brain chemistry. Our enteric brain, or gut brain, is responsible for producing 90% of our serotonin – a hormone vital for emotional balance, wellbeing and sleep. If we are too sedentary, serotonin levels drop. But research shows that if we move flexibly and stretch, it rises - enabling us to express curiosity, interact, collaborate and create.

One simple method to encourage its production is to stand up, let your arms go floppy and do some waist-twisting exercises. You will find that even after just a few minutes you have a feeling of levity – and that’s because you’ve stimulated the release of serotonin through your movement. That, in turn, will lead you to feel calmer and more centred, and to lead accordingly.

Breathwork is also massively scientifically important. Our breathing patterns have a significant influence on blood pressure, for example, and changing them up is typically our first port of call when we’re seeking to make a physiological shift to a risk-tolerant leadership state.

Physical intelligence, then, is a toolkit for helping you to optimise how you’re leading. It’s not about having perfect muscle tone and a six-pack. It’s about understanding that you have a body that’s strong in some ways and fallible in others – and that the way you decide to live in it can improve every moment of your leadership.

What are the organisational benefits that will flow from leaders who have understood and mastered physical intelligence?

The chief benefit is self-awareness. If you are able to manage your own state and have a perspective on what’s happening around you that isn’t locked in a stress response, you will be far more approachable – and better able to collaborate your way through any challenges your organisation is facing. You will also be far more equipped to make good decisions.

Our dopamine and oxytocin functions are also extremely important for helping us to imagine – and lead people towards – a future that feels attractive and innovative. And one thing we know about organisations is that they must innovate on a constant basis.

So, the whole process of creating that future ‘pull’ for your people – of moving from a short-term to long-term view, narrating what is happening and being open and vulnerable – hinges very much upon dopamine and oxytocin. As we endeavour to communicate with and motivate others, those chemicals are essential for leadership. They enable us to retain the big picture while managing all the moving parts associated with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment – or a brittle, anxious, nonlinear and incomprehensible (BANI) world, as other thought leaders have it. Pick your acronym!

The stress hormone cortisol is equally vital – it wakes us up in the morning and keeps us alive. But almost every leader who hasn’t done work on their broader physical intelligence will be running on cortisol levels that are too high. And that will impact upon every interaction they have, as well as the quality of their thinking and decision making.

What one thing would you say to a leader to fire their imagination about physical intelligence?

There’s a quote that’s often misattributed to Aristotle, but was actually coined by historian and philosopher Will Durant when summing up some of Aristotle’s thoughts: “We are what we repeatedly do.” I love that. It means that each moment, the choices we make – whether related to our posture, breathing patterns or ways we behave – are what we become.

So, do we want to remain stuck in habits, behaviours and muscle memories in our physicality – as well as ways of thinking and feeling in our psychological and emotional lives – that we know aren’t serving us, or others, well? Those negative habits, which we wrongly think define who we are, need to be broken. And then we will find that we are transforming into our true selves, shaped by our more positive choices.

Voices from our community: Claire Dale is founder and director of Companies in Motion and author of 'Physical Intelligence: Harness your body's untapped intelligence to achieve more, stress less and live more happily'.

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