Thoughts on the Trapezius and Charismatic Leadership

I find that paying attention to the patterns of our bodies is a fascinating adventure in and of itself. In addition, I am often intrigued by how lessons I’ve learned from my body can be a metaphor for my own life, my relationships with others and my understanding of global dynamics.

One day, while teaching a yoga class a thought came to me: the trapezius is like a charismatic leader! I said this out loud to the amusement of my students. It sounded intriguing, but now I needed to explain it.

The trapezius is a large superficial muscle. In anatomical language, superficial means that it is closer to the skin. It begins in the back of the head and continues downward to the part of the spine that connects to the rib cage. It also connects horizontally to the shoulder. Its main function is to move the shoulder blades and support the arms. It also moves the head backwards.

In short, the trapezius is a big muscle that covers a lot of space in a part of the body that we cannot see with our eyes.

Charismatic leaders often appear larger-than-life. They can enter a room and quickly become the center of attention. They have strong personalities and appear confident. Often, one can feel a sense of relief just by being in their presence; they seem to know all the answers. Their strong, assertive presence can lead us to believe that they will take care of things so we don’t have to work so hard.

At first, things feel great. Sometimes they remain that way. Charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi have made noteworthy contributions to society. However, there are many examples throughout history where charismatic leaders take control to serve their own inner needs and not the needs of their followers. Sometimes this happens gradually. Followers slowly give up their initiative and inner power. Then one day, as if out of the blue, pain appears. But actually, it’s been brewing for a long time.

Am I talking about people or muscles right now? Both!

We may be sitting at our computer, happily writing a story or surfing the web. We begin to lean our head forward and our shoulders round. The trapezius engages and the rhomboids, which stabilize the shoulder blades along with the serratus and a team of other muscles, don’t need to make much effort. After repeating this action many times, the rhomboids realize, “That trapezius is nice and big and strong. I can let it do the work; I can relax. I don’t need to be active.” Then the serratus and the rest of the team of muscles follow suit, and before we know it, our shoulders stay rounded, our head juts forward and we experience a searing pain in our neck or between our shoulder blades. Someone, perhaps in a yoga class or physical therapy says, “Soften the base of your neck” and you realize that you can’t do it. You have lost the ability to move some of the muscles in your back. The team of muscles that used to work together to support your head and neck has atrophied and the trapezius has taken over!

It’s a big step to make this realization and it can be very painful.

Max Weber, often heralded as one of the founders of Sociology, understood charismatic leadership to be less about the distinguishing traits of the leaders and more about the relationship between the leaders and their followers.

Once we have acknowledged the pain, we have a choice about how to be in relationship with it. We can accept the pain and continue on the same path, resigning ourselves to our loss of power and control. Or, we can begin to nurture the atrophied areas and slowly come back to a more integrated whole where our muscles work together as a team. Bringing vision and consciousness to the back of our hearts (the theme of my classes this past April) is a good place to start.