Perception, Reversibility, “Flesh”: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Leadership as Embodied Practice

January 2012 / Feature Articles

Donna Ladkin

Donna Ladkin

From the end of the 1990s to the present, a growing shift can be seen in the leadership literature away from predominantly cognitively-based accounts to those which recognise the emotional (Bono & Ilies 2006), affective (Naidoo, Kohari, Lord & DuBois 2010) and aesthetic (Hansen, Ropo & Sauer 2007; Ladkin 2008) aspects of leadership. Each of these approaches is grounded in an appreciation of leadership as a phenomenon that occurs through the interactions of sensing, perceiving bodies. This article adds to those voices by introducing ideas from the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and considers their implications within the leadership context. In particular, this rendering highlights the critical role of embodied perception at the heart of leader-follower relations. Additionally, it introduces Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “flesh”, which provides a new way of thinking about the “between space” in which those relations are enacted.

Though often overlooked, I make the case that highlighting the role bodies play in the enactment of leadership brings new insight into the way that the qualitative experience of leadership is generated. Doing so brings to our attention the fact that bodies are the locale of our felt, sensual response to the world around us, including the multitude of “others” we meet. It is through our bodies that our first judgements of one another are made, including whether or not we trust those purporting to be our “leaders”. There is important and powerful knowing here that is overlooked by more rationally-based accounts.

I begin by briefly considering theories of embodiment before moving on to introduce particular ideas from Merleau-Ponty. These ideas are then explored within the context of leadership through a case study example. The article ends by considering the implications of appreciating embodied cognition and leadership as “flesh” for leadership practice.

Theories of Embodiment

The study of embodiment and the role it plays in learning, cognition, and perception is on the rise, captured by the term “the corporeal turn” (Sheets-Johnstone 2009). Foremost among those writing about embodiment are psychologists and neurologists who are focusing particularly on “embodied cognition”. For instance, Rohrer (2007) suggests there are at least 12 different ways that embodiment can be defined in relation to cognition. The most prevalent one (and the one adopted here) is in its philosophical sense and as a counter to the mind/body split so often identified with Cartesian philosophy. From this point of view, rather than being separate and independent, it is important to recognise the mind as inseparable from the body. This has important implications for our understandings of learning and relatedness, as highlighted by Wilson (2002) who writes that cognitive processes themselves are “deeply rooted in the body’s interactions with the world . . . [and furthermore that] the mind must be understood in the context of its relationship to the physical body that interacts with the world” (625).

A key component of that world is the other people who inhabit it and the roles they take. Gallese (2003) speaks to the issues relevant to individuals taking up leader-follower roles by suggesting that “all kinds of interpersonal relations depend on the constitution of a shared manifold space . . . which furthermore is characterised by automatic, unconscious embodied simulation routines” (517). Closer to the field of management and leadership, Hosking (2011) writes extensively about relationality and what she describes as an “inter-active” space. What these writers allude to, but do not explicate fully, is the role that “felt-sense” – the sensual awareness of the body – plays in generating the experience of this shared, relational space.

Rather than elaborating on how an embodied cognition approach might contribute to our understanding of the role embodiment plays in leader-follower relations, I turn to the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in order to conceptualise the “between space” of leader-follower relations. Many scholars theorising relational leadership agree that relational space arises through perceptions (Murrell 1997; Brower, Schoorman & Tan 2000). However, what is often overlooked is that perception cannot occur without bodies to perceive and to be perceived, a point central to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. It is therefore embodiment that is fundamental to perception and is thus highly implicated in the creation of relational dynamics. When followers perceive a leader, they are doing so, literally, from a certain embodied perspective. The perspective arises literally from a particular physical location and the response to the leader is located in the physical body – often spoken about in terms of a “gut feel” reaction and sensory response. Similarly, leaders know their followers through the energetic quality of their engagement – those who rely purely on spoken assertions of “buy-in” often find themselves disappointed!

At a mundane level, the importance of embodied assessment underpins the oft-repeated phrase: “he does (or does not) walk the talk”. This judgement tells of the importance of congruence between what one is saying and what one literally, physically embodies. Studies have long indicated that body language and tone of voice carry more meaning than the actual words used to convey messages (see DeGroot & Motowidlo (1999) for a summary of these studies). If this is the case, why do theories of relational leadership focus so much on minds and words, when other research tells us it is bodies and the sounds they produce that are really attended to in interpersonal communication?

Perhaps one of the reasons is due to the difficulties inherent in conceptualising the role bodies play in creating relational space. As the very basis of our cognition and language, bodies easily disappear from view. The next section introduces key ideas from Merleau-Ponty that offers a conceptual way into this territory.

Enter Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) is probably best known for his major early work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945). In this text, Merleau-Ponty asserts the “primacy of perception”, arguing that all of the “higher” functions of consciousness, such as reflection and volition, are grounded in “pre-reflective, bodily existence” (Audi 1999: 559). His ideas were developed further in The Visible and the Invisible, an unfinished manuscript at the time of his sudden death in 1961[i]. Together these texts build a philosophy of perception and embodiment that have been unsurpassed in Western philosophy (Leder 1990).

Merleau-Ponty and Embodiment

Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualisation of embodiment is particularly radical by arguing that human bodies are both “immanent” and “transcendent”. Both of these terms have been extensively theorised. Here they are described in the following ways. “Immanence” refers to the material, corporeal flesh and bone aspect of the human body. It is through the immanent body that we experience sensation and are physically present in the world. “Transcendence” refers to those aspects of us that are not material: our intellectual, imaginative and cognitive processes[ii].

Within Western philosophy, certainly since Descartes, the transcendent aspects of being human have been privileged over the immanent aspects. Descartes’ famous pronouncement “cogito ergo sum” (I know myself to be a thinking being) (1988: xxii) has been the touchstone for this emphasis on the thinking, transcendent aspects of being. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy takes a radically different starting point for his understanding of being human – that without the immanent body, our transcendent consciousness would not exist. It is only because we are embodied that we are able to engage in constant interrogation of the world. Dillon (1997) explains this, writing:

I move in response to the demand of things to be seen as they are, as they need to be seen to respond to the reflexive questions that arise between us. The active, constituting, centrifugal role of the body, its transcendental operation is inconceivable apart from its receptive, responsive existence as flesh amidst the flesh of the world. The body does not synthesise the world ex nihilo; the body seeks understanding from the bodies with which it interacts. (146).

This quote highlights the pre-eminent role of the body within Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. He suggests that we do not just interrogate the world around us through questioning it intellectually, but that our bodies prompt questions as well as responses to the world around us. We are “nested” in contexts that include relationships with people as well as with the world. Drawing links between this insight and the phenomenon of leadership, it becomes clear that as embodied beings, leaders and followers will first and foremost interact with one another as bodies, rather than as “creators of visions”, “authors of mission statements”, or even “hierarchically-determined sources of authority”.

It is important here to stress that the notion of embodiment being used here goes beyond that connoted by the term “body language”. Although body language is an important and often noticed aspect of embodiment, the way one embodies her or himself goes deeper than surface-level body gestures. This includes the way that one’s body holds patterns of tension, one’s energetic quality, the way that one uses his or her voice, patterns and styles of movement, and general quality of bodily presence. All of these aspects are apprehended at a visceral level by other sensing human bodies that respond with their own embodied reactions. Our hearts race with excitement in response to the energetic way in which a message is conveyed before we interpret that embodied response as ‘”feeling inspired”. When our bodies give off reactions congruent with enthusiasm and interest, those who lead us know at a bodily level that they are on the right track and have won our “buy-in”. Thus the space between leaders and followers becomes potent for its ability to inform us about the quality of our interpersonal connections. Merleau-Ponty also notes that within this space and through others’ embodied responses to us, we are also informed about who we, ourselves, are. This idea is elaborated below.

Reversibility and Human Bodies as “Percipient Perceptibles”

A second radical way that Merleau-Ponty conceptualises perception is as a two-way, dynamic and interactive process. In Merleau-Ponty’s rendering, it is impossible for humans to assume the “God perspective” in which they objectively observe the world in such a way that they are not affected by the world observing them back. Human beings cannot perceive without simultaneously being perceived[iii]. Just as I observe another human being, I am aware that he or she can perceive me. The awareness of another’s perception will subsequently alter my awareness of myself. This constant interplay of perception and its implicate sense of being perceived creates the qualitative experience of being in relation to another.

Merleau-Ponty coins the term “percipient perceptibles” to describe this essential way of being in the world and writes of it in this way:

As soon as we see other seers, we no longer have before us only the look without a pupil, the plate glass of things with that feeble reflection, that phantom of ourselves they evoke by designating a place among themselves whence we see them: henceforth, through others’ eyes we are for ourselves fully visible (1968: 143).

Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting here that it is only through another’s perception that we come to know ourselves. If I bang my hand on the table and raise my voice and others recoil and retreat from me, this tells me that I have been too forceful in this situation (whereas in other situations the same gestures might generate different responses). At close inspection this interactional dynamic is apparent in the relationship between leaders and followers. Leaders only come to know themselves as leaders by acting in relation to perceiving followers; followers too, rely on their leaders to create and contain a sense of identity. In this way, who leaders and followers are to one another is in a constant state of co-creation and flux, determined by perceptual interchanges in the space operating between them.

Merleau-Ponty reminds us that these interpersonal perceptions are based primarily in the experience of our sensate, physical bodies. I am only able to perceive a person as a leader because I have a physical body that stands in material relation to this leader, who in turn stands in physical material reality in relation to me. When I regard that leader from a different physical perspective, I can become aware of different aspects of him or her, and likewise through his or her altered gaze I can experience a change in my own sense of who I am. We are perhaps more accustomed to the way in which seeing another from a different imaginary perspective can change our view, but the important thing to note here is even such imaginal shifts occur because of our embodied ability to physically change where we are in relation to another.

There are a number of interesting implications of this notion of reversibility for leaders and followers. For instance, it is through the perceptions they have of one another, which are generated firstly from their own physical location in relation to each other, that leaders and followers make judgements about one another. For example, we know this from the media’s interest in the way that political and business leaders appear. The huge amount of media coverage and analysis of the photograph released of Barack Obama and his senior team during the operation through which Bin Laden was killed points to the need to arrive at the “truth” of what was going on through an assessment of those individuals’ body postures and tensions, rather than just relying on press reports.

Similarly, new leaders of organisations are often evaluated according to the physical way in which they represent themselves. A recently appointed CEO of a firm for which I consult is spoken about in terms of his lack of attention to his physical appearance. A surprising amount of talk among his senior team focuses on his ill-fitting suits and scuffed shoes. One of his direct reports confided in me, “He would do himself a world of good around the place if he bought himself an expensive suit and got a decent haircut”. Such a comment could be discounted as indicative of society’s over-concerns with appearances and fashion. Interpreted through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy however, the senior team of this firm is reacting to what their new CEO’s appearance says about them, who they see themselves to be when they find themselves being led by someone who comports himself as the new CEO does. The notion of “reversibility” alerts us to the important role physical appearance plays in creating the perceptual dynamic between leaders and followers. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy goes even further in conceptualising this dynamic through his notion of “flesh”, introduced next.

Merleau-Ponty’s Notion of “Flesh”

The notion of “flesh” takes reversibility one step further by suggesting there is visceral substance to intersubjective embodied perception. Not only does flesh encompass the space between leaders and followers, it also includes the “surrounding space” in which these relations are enacted. Perhaps a way of understanding the notion of “flesh” is that it is analogous to an “energetic field” that is both constituted by, and exists between relating entities.  Not actually “material” itself, it is experienced as a quality of relational engagement, a “feeling” which can transcend actual geographical distance[iv].

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “flesh” alerts us to the visceral, invisible but substantive nature of the connection between leaders and followers and the context in which their relations are enacted. It is the energetic “stuff” that holds and carries the quality of leadership relations. For instance, from a Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) perspective, it could be that which distinguishes relationships that create in-group members from those that form out-group members. What the notion of “flesh” highlights that LMX theory does not, is that these relationships are first and foremost based on embodied perceptions.

Attention to the “quality of the flesh of leadership” might add a new way for leaders to think about those relationships. What might a leader do to “fatten” the flesh between him or herself and their followers? A good example of a means by which such relational “flesh” is created and maintained is exemplified by the way in which Obama ran his race for the US presidency in 2008, particularly in terms of the way that he used the Internet. Each morning when I turned my computer on to check my email, there would be a new message from the Senator, his wife, or his running mate, telling his supporters what he was doing and soliciting our ideas and input. Although conducted via email, the way in which he presented himself on the Internet, the visibility he gave himself by appearing on evening talk shows or even the Oprah Winfrey Show, made him available and thickened the “flesh” between himself and his supporters.

These three ideas: the centrality of embodied perception as the ground of interpersonal relations, the way these perceptions create identities through the notion of “reversibility”, and the idea of “flesh” as the “stuff” of materiality, as well as the conduit through which it is perceived, offer new ways of conceptualising the “in-between spaces” at the heart of leader-follower relations. In the section below, an example is introduced to explore their potential for illuminating dimensions of leader-follower relations that are overlooked by cognitive or linguistic approaches.

Embodied Relational Leadership in Practice

Jack Rice and His Team

Jack Rice (a pseudonym) is an ex-pat American working as the Managing Director of a group of Australian lawyers based in Sydney. He has held the post of MD for the last three years, having worked for the law firm for ten years prior to this promotion. Because of recent regulatory changes in Australia, lawyers are being encouraged to work in more collaborative relationships rather than operating as solo agents. This change has precipitated the need for a strategic change in the way in which lawyers in Jack’s firm conduct work.

Jack has attempted to implement this change through holding a number of meetings with lawyers in his firm in which he has explained the need for the change and has offered ideas for how they might begin forging new working relationships. Additionally, a fairly expensive poster campaign has been initiated – posters announcing the new “collaborative culture” were highly visible throughout the building the firm occupies. Jack engaged me to come to work with him because six months after the change had been announced, people’s ways of working had not significantly altered.

It is interesting to note my impressions of the way that Jack and members of his team embody themselves. Jack is a tall, rather large man who moves awkwardly. He does not seem “comfortable in his own skin”. Although he shook my hand firmly and caught my glance when we met, there was little warmth in his eyes and he quickly looked away. In contrast, for the most part, those in his team are physically fit, athletic and energetic Australians who spend their weekends playing hockey or rugby. As a group, they gave the impression of being “mates”, and from the outside, it was hard for me to understand why this “mati-ness” did not translate into collaborative working relationships.

Indeed, discussions with the lawyers revealed that they enjoyed working with one another, and could understand the need for Jack’s initiative. But somehow their acceptance of the needed change did not translate into action. Every time Jack attempted to push them, there was not so much open resistance as a sort of collective moving away. The lawyers politely, but clearly resisted Jack’s attempts to influence them. What was going on?

Interestingly, when I spoke with the lawyers, they almost uniformly made comments about the way in which Jack related to them from an embodied perspective. They didn’t like his “lack of eye contact”, and the way that he often walked by them without stopping to speak or the fact that he did not seem to know their names. They characterised his demeanour as aloof, and a number of them spoke of the way in which he did not seem comfortable with himself; therefore, it was not easy to trust him. A number of them mentioned the large American flag that hung on the wall behind Jack’s office desk as symbolic of Jack’s insensitivity to them and the Australian context in which they all worked.

Jack admitted he had very little contact with the team apart from the formal way in which they interacted. But he was surprised that this should make any difference to whether or not he could influence them. From his perspective, he was speaking the “right” language by explaining what needed to be done in a clear and rational way. What he did not understand was the way in which the rational message was being interpreted against a backdrop of embodied feelings and reactions to Jack at a much more personal level.

Analysing Jack’s Case from an Embodied Perspective

What insights might an embodied perspective bring to Jack’s situation? The notion of “reversibility” speaks of the way in which perceptions are reciprocated – as Jack sees the other lawyers in the firm, they see him but they also perceive themselves through his eyes. Only in this case, Jack provides very little by way of perceptual availability. He does not spend time perceiving them, and subsequently, they do not know “where they stand” with him. At the most basic level, by not holding their gaze or acknowledging who they are, Jack does not allow for the opportunity of perceptual dialogue.

That does not mean, however, that the lawyers have no perception of him as a leader. On the contrary, they watch for evidence of whom Jack is and how he wants to relate to them. In this case, the American flag that hung on his office wall served as embodied evidence that Jack did not consider Australia “home” and did not think of himself as “one of them”. When I asked Jack about the flag, he was again surprised that it should have any relevance at all to his being able to persuade the lawyers to change their working habits. Certainly, it would be impetuous to suggest a direct causal link between the two. However, an embodied perspective suggests that such material aspects are part of the context from which Jack’s relationships with the other lawyers arise, and thus will contribute to the perceptual dynamic dancing between them.

More strikingly, using Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “flesh”, it is apparent that Jack has not facilitated the creation of much “flesh” between himself and the lawyers he leads. The interaction between them is sparse and formal. During our discussions Jack admitted that remembering people’s names was difficult for him, and that this often made him embarrassed to talk with people, as this might become apparent. To ward off uncomfortable social interactions, he often walked past people without saying “Hello”. At the most fundamental level of leader-follower relations, this resulted in very little association between himself and those who worked for him. His ability to influence them was drastically reduced because of this lack of a basic connection.

More specific to Jack’s desired outcome, he did not set an example by willingly and enthusiastically embodying more collaborative working relationships himself. Doing so would serve two key purposes; it would be instructive in that it would literally show his lawyers how such relationships could be forged; and secondly, it would demonstrate his own willingness to take the first steps in engaging with the unknown territory of collaborative working.

In summary, from Jack’s perspective he had done what he thought necessary to establish a change in the working practices of the lawyers in his firm. He had explained the necessity for the change and had provided examples of how they might do it. This message had been reinforced with posters that clearly emphasised this requirement. From his point of view, these actions should have prompted the required change. However, the story reveals a more fundamental issue about the way in which Jack and the lawyers in the firm relate more generally that was not being addressed.

The Contribution of an Embodied Perspective

By jumping too quickly to the assumption that cognition and language are the mediators through which leadership is accomplished, the important work that bodies do in creating the quality of leader-follower relations is overlooked. The role embodiment plays in both day-to-day interactions and more specific leadership interventions, and how the latter relies on the former is apparent in the illustration of Jack Rice and his team. Although he used the “right” language, Jack’s lack of connection with the other lawyers and the absence of embodied coherence between his statements and his actions were contributing factors in his failure to foster strategic change.

This insight has important implications in two different arenas. Firstly, Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “flesh” highlights the lively dynamism inherent within the “space between” relational beings and the importance of attending to this space in order to create the basis for generative relations. It is, literally, where leadership happens.  After all, “leadership” is not located in “leaders” or “followers”; instead, it actually occurs in an energetic field through which leaders and followers move together towards purposeful action.  Both leaders and followers can influence this “between space” – primarily through revealing or withdrawing from it.  Furthermore, leaders and followers will each have their own perceptions of this space, which will further influence how it is experienced.

Drawing attention to the “flesh” of leadership this way means that leaders (or followers) might ask themselves questions not just about how they are doing as “leaders”, but about what they are doing to create the kind of leadership “flesh” they would desire.  For instance, they might ask: “How do I build the ‘flesh’ between myself and my followers?, How can I connect more strongly with my followers?” or “What might I do to enable my followers to reveal more of themselves within the ‘between space’ of our leadership engagement?”

There are of course questions for followers too, such as, “How do I communicate my perceptions to the leader in a way that is helpful and generative?”, “How do I do my part in building the flesh of this relationship?” In other words, an embodied perspective of leadership underlines the possibility of consciously creating the “between space” which holds leaders and followers in relation, rather than unconsciously letting it take care of itself. It will, of course emerge – but by attending to it and its qualities, leaders and followers can consciously create a more robust platform through which they can influence one another.

Secondly, an embodied perspective brings new insight into the important role bodies play in achieving desired organisational changes. In the case of Jack Rice, it became clear that he did not enjoy the necessary day-to-day connection with lawyers in his firm that would have enabled him to influence their ways of working. Without this foundational connection, when he initiated change there was little “stuff” of the relationship that supported him. His ability to instigate the desired change was further eroded by his lack of embodied example. The lawyers paid attention to what he did, rather than what he said.

Future Directions

Conceptualising leadership through the theoretical constructions of “reversibility” and “flesh” brings novel insight into the “black box” of leader-follower dynamics. Reversibility implies that this relationship is constantly co-created and that the co-creation process is fundamentally based on perceptual exchanges. Given this, if either leaders or followers want to shift the way in which they relate at the most basic level, either one can literally shift their perceptual location. Leaders and followers both might think of the relationship between them as composed of a “third body” that needs attention and nourishment in order for leadership to flourish between them.

An embodied approach highlights the limitations of studying leadership from an ontological position in which it is viewed as an individually generated phenomenon existing separately from its context and relational dynamics. It points to the appropriateness of methodologies that track “leader” and “follower” perceptions as “leadership” between them unfolds. Using methods based in an understanding of reversibility and “flesh” would necessitate fine-grained attention to attributions and sense-making, as well as how leaders and followers experience the energetic quality of relations between them both in the moment and after leadership events have resulted in outcomes.

Certainly empirically researching leader-follower relations from this perspective presents unique challenges. Because our embodied awareness operates at a pre-lingual, often unconscious level, it is difficult for people to “catch” and then articulate the bodily knowing that contributes to their reactions and responses to one another. Speaking about bodies is often taboo and fraught with sexual connotations that are often suppressed within organisational discourse. However, the difficulties associated with studying the role of embodiment within leader-follower relations should not override the important role it plays and the need to find creative ways of engaging with this invisible but powerful arena.

Perhaps most disturbingly to leadership theorists wishing to provide certainty about leadership and how it can be enacted effectively, the concepts forwarded by Merleau-Ponty point to the ever-changing and slippery nature of perceptions that fuel relational engagements. “Reversibility” and “flesh” highlight the fleeting and infinitely mutable nature of leadership as a meeting of individual perceptions embedded in unique contexts and historical moments, all adding their particular flavour and energy to the “space between” leaders and followers, where leadership happens.


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[i] The manuscript was subsequently published as a book in French in 1964 and translated into English in 1968.

[ii] Of course there are currently neuro-scientists who are progressing the idea that all of these processes are in fact the result of chemical and biological material processes that can be located. However the case is still made that cognition, imagination and intellect are themselves not physical entities in the way that our hands are, for instance.

[iii] Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility was even more radical because he conceptualised human bodies as phenomenal “things” within a world of other phenomenal “things”. What this means is that for him, we are not just “observed” by other human beings, we are “observed” by all of the “things” of the world, even if they are not conscious. For instance, as I sit on the chair that I am sitting on as I type these words, I may bring my attention to it and notice its hardness and sturdiness (or not) and simultaneously, I am “touched” by the chair. Of course the chair does not have a consciousness that registers the quality of my body on it, however, by noticing how my body feels as I am in touch with it, I actually learn something about my own body. In this way, the chair’s “observation” of me informs me about myself.

[iv] Merleau-Ponty appropriated the term “flesh” initially from Sartre, who described “flesh” as the “union” of contradictions (Sartre 1943/2002). For Merleau-Ponty, “flesh” was instead the “unity” of contradictions i.e. “the concrete coincidence of immanence and transcendence in the phenomenon of the lived body’ (Dillon 1997: 140). The distinction is important in that for Sartre, entities engaged in relational processes still maintained their individual identities within relationship. For Merleau-Ponty, “flesh” indicates a much closer merging of those engaged in relating, so that they become “one flesh” through the relational process.

 About the Author

Donna Ladkin is Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Cranfield School of Management in the UK.  A philosopher and musician by background, her research and teaching highlight the aesthetic and ethical qualities at the heart of leader-follower relations.   She is the author of numerous articles which have been published in journals such as The Leadership Quarterly, Leadership, The Academy of Management Learning and Education, and the Journal of Business Ethics as well as the book, Rethinking Leadership:  A New Look at Old Leadership Questions published by Edward Elgar. Her book was a recipient of the Integral Leadership Review’s Book of the Year Award for 2010.