Power of breathing to improve leaders performance

Control breathing is the cheapest and most powerful weapon in your leadership arsenal. Do it daily, and you build the character of a powerful calm leader able to stay clear and guide well through any stressful situations.


Unfortunately we in the west are quick to dismiss the practice of controlled breathing and meditation, especially in the workplace. “oh i don’t have time for that hippy stuff” one strung out manager declared to me. The founder of western philosophy, Rene Descartes is well known for deciding the distinction between mind and body. Basically because the soul lives on, goes to heaven, and the soul is in the mind it is therefore seperate to the body. In other words if god inhabits the mind than the person can not.* God controls our mind and therefore we can not. The consequence of this kind of philosophical declaration is that western medicine has often dismissed the mind-body connection as theoretic from uncivilised cultures.In the Indian culture they have recorded the benefits of meditation and repetitive control breathing since 700bc. We in the west are only know come to respect the power of mindfulness.  We now know that what you think, feel and do very much has neurological and physiological connections.

Essentially breathing acts as a throttle for your heart rate. Your heart rate controls the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, muscles and directly impacts the health of the autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems. Those things that go all ‘haywire’ when we’re stressed out. Dr. Herbert Bensen of Harvard University summarised his studies in the brilliant book the Relaxation Response;

“we have within us an innate capacity that’s the opposite to the lighter fight response

and that’s called the relaxation response - the precise opposite of a stress or fight or flight response.”

What that translates to as a leader of people is that you can activate your relaxation response to be able to better handle stressful situations and to walk through fire while everyone else around you is running around with their heads chopped off. 

As breathing determines your heart rate, your heart rate is the metronome for high performance. It is how athletic fitness is determined. To the contrary Heart Rate Variability monitoring is a medical indicator for assessing disease risk factors such as diabetes, glucose, intolerance and hypertension.^ When you aren’t consistently breathing deeply you are ‘short of breathe’; essentially 'starving’ for oxygen’ as they say. When we’re starving for oxygen we trigger our survival functions and limit our focus to fighting for that one element.  We stress our lungs, our brains and subsequently our thinking. This is as very much true when you are drowning in the ocean or as we commonly say 'drowning at work’. ^^

You have a choice. 

  1. Master the performance power of leading calmly and decisively by activating your breathing patterns, or

  2. Continue to starve yourself of oxygen and choke when your performance needs it to be otherwise.

In case you missed the how to in last weeks practice guide here is Dr Mckinnon - author of Psychology Today - providing the easiest guide to practice your breathing. And i say practice every single day.

  • "Inhale through your nose for a count of four. Then exhale through your nose for a count of six. Repeat this process six times.

  • You have just slowed your respiratory rate to six breaths per minute and emphasized your exhalations. Adults breathe at an average of 15 breaths per minute so this exercise asks you to reduce your basal rate by a little more than half.

  • Rather than getting caught up in the numbers, however, it is best to just try to take slow, deep breaths, emphasising your exhale.”

On a professional and personal level I practice the relaxation response by controlling my breathing whenever I get a stress trigger. The benefit of teaching myself this as a child is that it’s now an automated habit response. Over time, you will build your automated habit response too.

When I was managing a UK Property portal delivery team as part of a well known Australian property websites network we had a major incident whereby the servers went down and 12,500+ real estate agents in the UK couldn’t post their property listings. They can’t post their listings, they don’t get leads, they don’t get leads, they don’t get sales and no one gets paid. Yup, it was one of those terrible days in software development that gave reasoning to automation and better system redundancy years later. Adding to the magnitude of this incident was that there was no fail over switch. Basically, we hadn’t completed a legacy migration of the oracle system and the power cord  "accidentally” jumped out of the power switch, subsequently the servers wouldn’t boot up. 

(yes, apparently there were ghosts around them machines - or so the rumours go). 

There was no easy fix and we needed to essentially ‘recode’ the data transfer definitions that made it possible for agents to bulk load listings and to manage their data. Generally when these sort of million dollar incidents occur there is a plethora of drama and scapegoating and stress yelling. None of that generates a powerful response from teams. It may get the job done but it will be once and it will be barely sufficient to thrive with those managers from there after. While a number of senior execs stepped in to emphasise the ‘urgency’ and ‘importance’ of the situation, none of them had the capability to guide an efficient reconnaissance, emergency coordination of teams, and calmly facilitate a response plan with 50+ people in one room and the rest on the phones overseas. 

Yelling louder, repeating the same impact statement and throwing blame just makes you look like an unintelligent idiot. Or as one office comedian refers to them as “the Tassie devil spinning madly throwing dust and getting no where.” The Senior Architect and I lead the Response Plan session, guided the self-selection of focus teams, and supported the mitigation to close out 80% issues in 48 hours. Not because we were any less stressed, we were incredibly stressed, we lacked sleep and didn’t necessarily know if the response plan would work. We managed the emergency calmly and decisively because despite of that stress we didn’t let it control us nor the situation. 

If you’re ever in one of those situations where someone is going a over the top crazy don’t react be intentional responsive. In those ‘drama’ moments of them yelling - breathe, and let the other persons emotions exhaust themselves, than take a deep breathe again before speaking. What this gives you is;

  1. time to assess, process and plan before acting

  2. stable heart rate to perform well

  3. mitigates further risk and damage by not allowing the damage to amplify

  4. people resonate to calm and they too can then perform better.

The benefits to you as a leader over time will be amplified, and you will learn quickly to assess a situation, process the information and plan your tactics so the action is decisive. The benefits to you personally will also grow with time and practice.  As the wonderful Brene Brown discovered in her research “cultivating calm and letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle” is one of the guideposts of wholehearted living. "The wholehearted do this through breathing, they breathe A LOT" .

For now, practice - 4 in, 6 out. 4 in, 6 out. You don’t have woke up at sunrise and force yourself to meditate. You don’t need to walk through fire to change your alarm responses. You can practice any time, any where. In fact the more you do so randomly the more you build it up as habit.

A quick exercise for you to do;

Next someone asks you a question; breathe 4 seconds in, breathe 6 seconds out and than respond.