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Integrative Leadership: An Embodied Practice

By Lori Knutson, RN, BSN, HNB-BC

We may define the elements of Integrative Leadership in the following way:

Integrative: “Serving or intending to unify separate things”
Leadership: “Going before or with to show the way”

Those of us who have been in the integrative health field know that health is much more than a symptom, disease, illness, or disability. These are the physical manifestations of the world around us and the world within us.   The science of epigenetics now validates much of what we have observed and experienced as integrative health providers and practitioners, and as informed human beings.   Our new scientific discoveries in health and medicine, our evolving knowledge of the environment, the growing diversity of people, and the political and economic landscape are the separate parts of a dynamic and complicated whole that many say is on the verge of crisis. Integrative leaders have an opportunity to impact all of these social and human components.   Whether society moves in the direction of wholeness or fragmentation and disease will be determined by the wholeness of those who lead. It requires a dramatically different way of “being” in those who lead. I believe now is the time for integrative leadership — it is our social imperative.


Integrative Health is an embodied health movement.   An embodied health movement is a social movement with a shared consciousness and shared physical experience that impassions people to transform not only themselves but also society.

Embodied health movements have three unique components1:

  1. They introduce the biological body to social movements, especially with regard to the embodied experience of people with the disease. We see this with cancer and social collective action like marches for the cure of breast cancer.
  2. They typically include challenges to existing medical/scientific knowledge and practice.
  3. They often involve activists collaborating with scientists and health professionals in pursuing treatment, prevention, research and expanded funding.

Our shared consciousness is the collective awareness that our “sick” care system is not wholly equipped to meet the “health” needs of society. Our shared physical experience is the epidemic of chronic health conditions that is impacting individuals, generations, our economy, and our future. We have reached a social imperative regarding the health and wellbeing of our society. The “sick” care system itself has become a chronic social condition. We need a true “health” care system that sees the whole of human beings versus our parts that need to be fixed. It is not working! We have been embodying a social ill; it is time to embody wholeness.


Leadership is often put in context of a hierarchy, someone who has the command and control of people, things, and processes. External power. The command and control form of leadership may work well when the person in the formal leadership position holds all of the knowledge and information that is required to achieve certain ordained results. However, in the panacea of today’s technology, knowledge and information is available to anyone who wishes to seek it. There is a new freedom to become more because we are aware there is more.

It is of human design to have the construct of a leader and follower(s).   We each innately hold certain skills, abilities, and capacities. Not everyone holds the inner state of true leadership. Followers today are looking to leaders who they believe have the capacity to create the space and energy for an emerging possibility. Leaders today must express and personify, or embody, a way of being that exemplifies that which they are impassioned to transform. They connect with an inner source that contains insight to self, and the whole.   In today’s environment followers are less willing to give their power away to someone else and more likely to engage in a mutually respectful relationship with someone who envelops a vision of wholeness, and an ability to draw out the gifts of those who align with them to achieve extra-ordinary results.

Otto Scharmer, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and developer of “Theory U”, a systems leadership framework, speaks about the leaders blind spot, a disconnect from the Source from which they lead.   He states, “we know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know little about the inner place, the source from which they operate”2. It is this fundamental discovery of the blind spot that allows the leader to see what cannot be seen with the eyes, hear what is not said with words, feel what is felt only from the soul, and known from a shared consciousness.   These are the attributes embodied by the Integrative Leader.   In integrative health we believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Integrative leaders see the whole and the parts, and have knowingness about what it all means and a vision by which to move forward. Isn’t that what leading is, moving people, a culture, an organization forward to something better and greater for all? Scharmer states, the leader of today is leading from an emerging future. Integrative health is an embodied health movement and it is emerging at an accelerated pace. It requires leaders who embody integrity, authenticity, courage, compassion, empathy, humility and passion.

It also requires these leaders to embody fluidity, foresight, and inclusiveness. They are catalysts in the creative process, trust and empower others to succeed, and develop resilience to the dynamic environments in which they exist.


In integrative clinical practice we hold that the relationship we have with our patient may be more powerful in the healing process than any one intervention. This is true in Integrative Leadership.   Relationship is the key to the embodiment of wholeness and the transformation of our environment.

The Integrative Leader trusts, lets go, and allows what wants to emerge. This trust of others requires even a greater trust of self. This kind of trust holds firm that what needs to happen will, for the right reason, and at the right time. It doesn’t mean, however, there is a void of challenges.   But the greatest challenge may be surrendering to self-trust when the ego prefers to take control.   It also doesn’t mean that the Integrative Leader is acquiescent, rather it requires knowing when to lead from the front and when to lead from behind.

Through relationship building, the Integrative Leader cultivates and unifies mindful teams. In turn, these teams develop their own relationships with others, and as they create effective group dynamics whenever and wherever they interact, they expand the depth of the evolution throughout the organization. As more individuals embrace the vision through demonstration of value and the creation of win-win alliances, a feeling of ownership for the evolution permeates the culture.” (from The Pebble in the Pond) 

This ripple effect happens because the Integrative Leader embodies an emotional intelligence. In Daniel Goleman’s book, Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, he reveals “the actions of the leader account for up to 70 percent of employees’ perception of the climate of their organization.3 Emotional intelligence is a key element of self awareness and the ability to self regulate. The Integrative Leader personifies this capacity. This is the embodiment of self-integration.   You might ask yourself the following questions to determine where you are in relationship to emotional intelligence:

  • What response do I elicit?
  • Do I engender respect or fear? Trust or suspicion?
  • Do I decrease or increase tension?
  • Up and down the corporate ladder, how do people respond when I approach them?

If you cannot answer these questions or the answer falls toward the more negative response side it is time to invest in a new way of being; that is if you desire to be an effective Integrative Leader.


Integrative Leadership applies holistic principles and integrative practice to lead people and systems to wholeness.   Integrative Leadership is the capacity to awaken collective wisdom to attain the full potential of individuals and systems.

It has become apparent that to achieve true transformation in the way our society approaches health and healing, the values inherent in Integrative Healthcare need to be embraced by the entire healthcare system.   Such transformation calls for leaders who are change agents, people who have self awareness and integrity and who will not only educate, energize and inspire others, but also create a shared vision among diverse people while solving problems, overcoming resistance and turning challenges into opportunities.” (from The Pebble in the Pond)

Organizational systems are complex, in some ways mirroring the complexity of the human organism. Viewing an organization with the same holistic principle of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts provides context to the transformative action the integrative leader needs to embody.   Understanding complexity theory can inform the integrative leader and the avenue by which they may develop a strategy for a system or organization to embody integrative health.

Generally speaking organizational complexity may be addressed as follows:

  • DYNAMIC — A delayed response in time and space; global warming/US health system
  • SOCIAL — Number of key stakeholders (political, environmental, pharmaceutical, consumer etc.)
  • EMERGING — The problem statement is not fully formed; the solution is not fully known.

An essential skill of an Integrative Leader is the capacity to be in the complexity but not of the complexity, to be an action driven observer. This might sound counter-intuitive however the ability to, in essence, hover above, around, and weave within the organizational complexity provides observational data that informs strategy.   General Stanley McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams, refers to this as “seeing the system” and becoming an “empathetic crafter of culture”.4


The embodiment of Integrative Health by the Integrative Leader, from the micro to the macro, is a journey. An end goal does not actually exist. As an Integrative Leader you must embrace being the novice and release being the expert. Perhaps the most profound evidence that you have made an impact is when others have been empowered to be the change.

If we accept the notion that Integrative Health is an embodied health movement with a shared consciousness and shared physical experience that impassions people to transform not only themselves but also society then we, as Integrative Leaders, must “Be” that embodiment.   Humanitarian and poet, Vaclav Havel’s poem, “It is I Who Must Begin” articulates this beautifully:


“It is I who must begin

Once I begin, once I try—

here and now,

right where I am,

not excusing myself

by saying that things

would be easier elsewhere,

without grand speeches and

ostentatious gestures,

but all the more persistently

to live in harmony

with the “voice of Being” as I

understand it within myself

as soon as I begin that,

I suddenly discover,

to my surprise, that

I am neither the only one

nor the first,

nor the most important one

to have set out

upon that road.


Whether all is really lost

or not depends entirely on

whether or not I am lost.



1Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Learning from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


2Brown, P., Zavestoski, S., McCormick, S., Mayer, B., Morello‐Frosch, R., & Gasior Altman, R. (2004). Embodied health movements: new approaches to social movements in health. Sociology of health & illness, 26(1), 50-80.


3Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.


4McChrystal, S. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.



Lori Knutson, RN, BSN, HNB-BC, is both a clinician and healthcare administrator with over 25 years of dedication to the advancement of integrative healthcare. Ms. Knutson is founder and president of Integrative Healthcare Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that partners with individuals and organizations to develop and advance sustainable integrative health initiatives, and core faculty for the Leadership Program in Integrative Healthcare at Duke.

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