For More Impactful Leadership, Slow Down & Breathe

We think too much. We work too much. We’re stressed out too much.

And we know it.

Yet, few of us make a conscious effort to give ourselves a break. It seems we’re in constant overdrive and don’t know how to slow down our hectic pace.

The Path to Impactful Leadership Starts with the Breath

According to Deepak Chopra, author and alternative medicine guru, on average, 41 thoughts are pouring through our minds each minute. All the over-thinking and over-doing causes the body to be continually in a fight-or-flight mode, resulting in a myriad of health concerns.

“In today’s rush we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just being.”

-Eckhart Tolle

How can we stop thinking so much? There is a simple way…

By consciously focusing on our breathing. By taking deep breaths and practicing controlled breathing, our bodies respond in a variety of beneficial ways.

And just as importantly, conscious breathing assists us in practicing mindfulness, when we make the most of the present moment. This, in turn, allows us to become more effective leaders, too.

We Don’t Know How to Breathe Effectively

In a director article aptly called Breathe Your Way to Better Leadership, Nilfer Atik writes that in our business lives, breathing takes a back seat to monitoring profits and losses.

But we can change that, according to Atik. How? By focusing on our breathing, we can:

-Improve concentration

-Increase productivity

-Spark creativity

-Manage demands more effectively

Richard Russell, consultant respiratory physician at Lymington New Forest Hospital, says we don’t breathe “naturally.”

“As babies, we naturally take deep breaths from our abdomens. As we get older, periods of stress cause our central nervous systems to operate in the sympathetic mode. This means that our natural ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, which causes us to take shorter, sharper breaths.”

As a result, we over-breathe and take in too little oxygen to nourish our bodies, resulting in fatigue, depression, and even panic attacks, according to Russell.

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

-Amit Ray

CEO of TLEX Institute Johann Berlin assists companies in training restorative techniques to employees. His experience shows that leaders who take time out from their busy days to replenish and restore themselves are more successful and effective.

One technique Berlin cites as making that meaningful difference: conscious breathing.

“Even one deep, conscious breath can serve as the mini-meditation that we need to slow down and reduce tension,” Berlin explains. Taking that pause to enjoy several deep breaths lays the foundation for us to move into our tasks with a fresh energy and even a newfound enthusiasm.

Many experts offer their own breathing exercises. Alan Dolan, known as a ‘breath guru,” teaches his own technique of conscious breathing. Berlin’s can be found here; choose what works, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Whichever technique we choose to integrate into our lives, taking the time for conscious breathing will help us to reduce stress and become more mindful – a win-win situation for our bodies – and our careers. 

Mindfulness: Connecting & Accepting the Present Moment

We can’t hide stress from our bodies – or our employees. Our bodies let us know by high blood pressure, weight gain, panic attacks and a host of other maladies that stress has taken over.

Marissa Levin, founder and CEO of Successful Culture, notes that when leaders are stressed, good employees will flee for the sake of their own health and well-being.

It seems their employees know it – and feel it, according to Harvard research. And when leaders are unable to manage their stress constructively, more than half of their workforce views their leadership as ineffective – and even harmful.

Harvard research also showed that leaders can manage stress by practicing mindfulness, by being focused on the present moment and by being aware. Three areas that can help leaders to be more present are:

  1. Metacognition – observe from a distance what is taking place around us. This helps to become more aware of our reactions to situations.
  2. Allowing – observe what is happening without judging or criticizing anyone – or ourselves.
  3. Curiosity – strong leaders possess deep curiosity, a willingness to learn about all situations.

A mindful leader has self-awareness, transmuting instant reactions into thoughtful responses.

When a triggering incident occurs in the workplace, a mindful leader does not react. He or she takes a few moments to observe and assess the situation, and then responds appropriately. Those few moments of quiet awareness diffuse highly charged situations and help set the tone for more meaningful dialogue.

“Breathing deeply and releasing fear will help get you where you want to be.”

-Iyanla Vanzant

An effective response starts with something as simple as one deep breath. During this time of world-wide upheaval, now more than ever it’s time to take the opportunity to demonstrate courage, vision, and strength in leadership so that we can rise above – and inspire others to do the same.

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This Is Our Collective Moment for Meaningful Change

“Motivation comes from working on things we care about.”

-Sheryl Sandberg

What do my foot operation and the protests that are happening over the past few weeks in the US have in common?

(Before I continue, I want to make it clear that this in no way (at all) suggests that whatever has been ailing my foot can in any way be compared with the violence and unfairness that minorities have endured for centuries. It cannot, it never will – and I have too much respect for all people as equals to even suggest anything otherwise.)

The similarities I see between such seemingly disparate situations as my foot and ongoing protests are:

  1. Both are very present in my mind and life right now.
  2. Both involve addressing something that really matters.

What do I mean here?

Pain as a Necessary Passageway to Growth

Well, for one, my foot has been painful to me for a couple of years now. This is somewhat of a big deal given how (in non-Covid times) I often travel and how much of my facilitation work is spent on my feet.

Yet my doctor cautioned against panicking and said I had plenty of time to get the surgery he was recommending. Meanwhile, it continued to hurt – not only when I walked on it, but also when lying around. The discomfort had gradually become a constant issue in my life.

But, finally, last week, I did do something about it. I had that operation. Now I am in a painful recuperation period. But this pain is for a good cause because it is a necessary passageway to feeling better than I did before. Rather than continuing to suffer, I am taking a strong step toward self-care, toward making my experience of life better. This, in turn, will allow me to bring my best self into everything that I do, to serve others in stronger, more impactful ways.

Taking a Stand to Start the Healing Process

On a far more serious and wide-reaching scale, there is the unjustifiable racism which has plagued minorities for seemingly ever. Some or all of it we all have probably participated in – even without realizing it, perhaps on an unconscious level. Somewhere along the way, I too must have been guilty of racist beliefs and behaviors, as much as I am ashamed to realize it. It’s painful.

All of that pain that so many people have endured for centuries has finally cumulated into what we’re seeing now. People are taking a stand (getting an operation) for fairer treatment of African Americans and others who have been mistreated for far too long.

This uniting across the world to take a stand is one way of metaphorically getting our mindsets operated on in order to heal the deep wounds of social injustice. We haven’t reached this point quickly – or easily. There has been a lot of pain and suffering along the way.

And now, many signs are pointing to a tipping point with new laws concerning police, the opening up of previously closed cases and the actual kneeling in honor of a man beaten to death by those who held authority positions.

Our Universe is Calling Us to Change

It seems that for both what is going on with my foot and the recent events in the US, we have finally woken up to what has been needed to be addressed for a long time. We are no longer pretending the pain and the suffering is not there. We are finally doing something about it.

And how many of us turn into ostriches when it comes to really taking care of important things?

Do we have those courageous conversations when we really need to (when the kitchen faucet just begins to drip) or do we wait until a full-blown crisis (when the drip has turned into a flood all over the kitchen floor)?

Do we say what we mean and mean what we say – or do we continue saying what we think other people want to hear so they will like us (and, in return, we end up disliking ourselves more and more)?

Or how about those of us who are engaged in compulsive behaviors that we are not proud of and which threaten our mental and physical health? For how long will we keep abandoning ourselves?

This is Our Collective Moment for Change

The time is NOW to do something about it. We cannot afford to wait for another crisis, or for some undetermined point in the future in hopes that “someday maybe things might change.” And we can’t take the easy way out and say that someone else will lead change.

We can come together to use all the best tools we have to get where we need to go. Right now, in this very moment, we have the opportunity to redefine our future.

Now.

We deserve to move beyond our pain. And the world needs us, too.

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Take the first step today.

A World in Crisis: A Time When Authentic Leaders Can Have the Most Impact

We’ve heard the term ‘leader’ so often that its real meaning has lost its significance. Especially in today’s time where people with significant responsibility are far from fulfilling a leadership role. Look at what’s happening in the United States right now.

There are so-called leaders in sports, politics, business, and every arena in life, but are they true leaders? Do they inspire others with vision and purpose – or do people merely listen to their rhetoric – and dismiss it?

In today’s uncertainties, where normal routines have collapsed and everyday life is curtailed by the effects of the pandemic and the flagrant racism in the United States, many leaders around the world are proclaiming their visions (or opinions) on what steps to take for the future. Who really is emerging as a true leader?

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Authentic Leaders Sail Steadily Ahead in Stormy Seas

Dagmar Meachem, in Turning Challenge Into Opportunity, notes that courage is an important part of leadership. He coined a contemporary definition of leadership:

“A great leader is someone who has influence and can effectively motivate a group to act towards achieving a common goal because they have mental and moral strength and will persevere and withstand danger despite their fears and the difficulty of the challenge.”

He follows with an important question: “Is this someone you’d like to work with or for? Is this someone you’d go the extra mile for?”

We can all nod in enthusiastic agreement: Yes!

Courage is an important part of leadership. Letting our authenticity shine, being willing to show vulnerability, takes courage. To take the road less traveled takes courage.

To think out of the box takes courage. And during these epic challenges thrust upon us by the pandemic and by the eruption of racism and the ensuing violence, we should ask often if we’re leading with courage, if we are leading with those values that are most important to us.

Courageous Leaders Are Willing to Take Risks

Bill George, writing in Forbes, explains leaders with courage take risks that often go against the norm of their organization. In other words, they’re not afraid to make bold moves in the name of their purpose and values.  By definition, he says courage is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear.”

Some leaders lack courage, George notes, because they’re too focused on numbers or reaching a particular mark or milestone. Leaders with courage forge ahead boldly – despite the risks. Take Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, for instance.

An article in The Atlantic calls her leadership style empathetic, with public messages that are “clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing.”

39-year-old Ardern has cast aside conventional leadership methodologies, aligning with her own values instead. And as many leaders know, this takes a lot of courage.

It’s working – and not just on an emotional level. In a time of worldwide crisis, very few people in her country of over 4 million people have died from the ongoing pandemic.

Meachem, too, cites the importance of courage in leadership. Among many benefits, courage builds:

  • Powerful influence, since it takes courage to be honest and transparent with those we lead.
  • An atmosphere for productive, healthy conflict, where others feel comfortable challenging ideas and ways of thinking.
  • Deep accountability – courageous leaders don’t cast blame – they’re not afraid to call others (or themselves) out.

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change.

The leader adjusts the sails.”

-John Maxwell

Impactful Leaders Know the WHY

Children are infamous for asking questions incessantly. Many parents can relate to growing weary from their oft-repeated question, WHY?

It would be wise to remember those lessons from childhood. In a Harvard Business Review article by Nancy Duarte, we read that employees are much more motivated to accomplish a project when they truly understand the ‘why’ behind it.

“If they don’t know why a new action is necessary,” Duarte explains, “they won’t be motivated to help you.”

She gives an example of answering the “why” regarding the current COVID-19 crisis: “We can reduce secondary infection rates by 40%, saving thousands of lives.” In an instant, you have captured an audience and answered the critical “why” of a situation.

A common leadership trap is that we assume others know the “why” – when in reality it may not be abundantly clear to them. Duarte offers up a few helpful tips to identify the ‘why’:

-Ask thought-provoking questions.

-After questions, explain with “because” statements.

-Offer alternate aspects and explain why you dismissed them.

Don’t forget to include key benefits to support the “why” to get everyone motivated and on board.

Effective leadership is about art and scienceThinking – and Leading – Outside Your Comfort Zone

McKinsey & Company explains leaders should practice integrative awareness: being aware of the changing reality of the world and how to respond emotionally and physically. Now more than ever before, this is crucial as we adapt to historic change and a new way of living and leading.

During times of crisis, it would serve leaders well to be:

Calm, approaching fears as opportunities for learning

Optimistic, combining confidence and realism

Additionally, we need to practice integrative awareness, notes McKinsey & Company, citing Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who, after having two engines disabled by flocks of birds, calmly assessed the situation and then took action.

Even though air traffic controllers urged him to return to the airport, he sensed he could not make it back and chose to land his aircraft in the Hudson River – saving everyone on board.

Finding Balance Between Observation & Experience

Sullenberger balanced his emotions with a rational thought process, a practice termed metacognition. He had the internal awareness on two levels: not only was he observing the situation, he was experiencing it at the same time. He was able to sense early signs of fear – but did not act out a stress response. That, says McKinsey & Company, is vitally important in times of crisis.

“Without objective awareness, signals of distress can trigger “survival” behavior, and we lose the ability to pause, reflect, and decide. For a leader during crisis, this survival state can present a huge risk, and in the case of Captain Sullenberger, it would have been fatal.”

No one is immune to challenges. But it is our thoughts that determine how we perceive them.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees  the opportunity in every difficulty.”

-Winston Churchill

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