Here’s a test.  Recall the last time you were in a crowded elevator, plane, bus or sidewalk. When other people pushed up against you, how did you respond physically? Did you crunch yourself up to make room for others, or did you stand your ground and cause others to adjust to you? The body is not just a metaphor here – it is one mirror of how adaptable or assertive you are to others. This quick reflection may give you some important insight into how you lead.

A core function of leadership is to shape the environment – to affect the activities, priorities, and energies of those around you.   This requires you to “claim your space:” to exert a strong enough presence to cause a shift in others.  But before you can do that externally, you must do it within.

Recently, a leader was lamenting to me that her assistant was not performing up to standard. The assistant was often absent on questionable bouts of sick leave and refused to take training because she ‘really wasn’t interested’ in learning about spreadsheets.   As a result, the assistant created tremendous inefficiencies and extra work for everyone around her.  The leader’s response?  “I feel bad for my assistant because she’s the underdog (because she’s at a lower grade level).”  My response to this leader?  “Actually, it sounds like you’re the underdog in this relationship.  Your assistant appears to be the one in charge.”

This is a well-intentioned, caring leader who has not been claiming her space.   She is, at some level, apologetic about her power.  She demonstrates what can happen when a leader overuses kindness and adaptability.   She has become largely impotent – to the detriment of herself, her team and bottom-line results.

Practices for claiming your space

Claiming your space is a ‘learnable’ skill.  Here are a few exercises that can get you started.

“Filling your skin.”  Three times a day, stop what you’re doing and breathe into every inch of your physical body.  Imagine infusing every cell, muscle, bone, organ and tissue with ‘yourself.’  Imagine your aspirations, values and commitments filling every inch of yourself, like water in a balloon.  Take note of how that affects your mood, confidence and sense of strength.

Interacting while ‘full.’  Do the ‘fill your skin’ practice just before you go into an important meeting or conversation.  Without trying to change your behavior, just see what happens in the interaction when you’re more fully inhabiting yourself.

Filling the space outside your skin.  This is great to try in meetings or in public places. ‘Fill your skin’ first, and then imagine radiating that power out into the space around your body.  Again – no need to try to ‘act’ bigger or change your behavior in any way. Just watch what happens when you simply allow your own fullness to move into the invisible field around you.  See if you can get people to physically adjust to you, such as on the bus or in the street.  You might be amazed at the external impact that this simple internal shift can make.

Experiment with these practices and let us know what you discover!