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Step 1 to become a great leader: Learn to breathe

As you may be aware, I’m writing a book about leadership. Specifically, about becoming a great leader, in a technical industry. But the more I explore, reflect on my leadership experiences and talk to great technical leaders around the country, the more I appreciate the universality of the lessons.

There some lessons that come up time and time again. These lessons I’ve collected as a framework that will be featured in the book: The 6 superpowers of great leaders.

But then there are the lessons that no one talks about, but everyone knows. I like to call these the ‘unknown knowns’. We all know them, and if I told you, you’d say “oh yeah, well that’s just obvious!”

However if I asked you to tell me what the number one most important skill is for a leader, what would you say?

You probably wouldn’t say: Breathing.

Step 1: Learn to breathe

Breathing is so close to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy as to not even bother mentioning. It just goes without saying. In fact its an autonomous system in our body, so we actually have to go out of our way to stop breathing.

And yet, its critical to the performance of every other aspect of leadership. If we don’t do it well, our performance suffers.

By this point some of you are thinking ’not this hippy dippy nonsense again!’. I promise this has tangible results based on concrete evidence, bear with me.

Proper breathing—good deep belly breathing—is a skill I’ve had to learn and relearn over time, because it’s so easy to forget the importance of. Early this year I had the good fortune to be taught again by Master Breather and all-round nice guy, Cameron Aggs.

“We all breathe, but not many of us do it well”, says Cameron Aggs, Clinical Psychologist and Mindfulness Training Specialist. “Most of us expand our chest, rather than our diaphragm when we breathe in. This reduces our oxygen intake and is associated with the fight-flight response as opposed to the relaxation response,” he explains. “Alternatively, slow belly breaths increase oxygen to the brain and body and bring an array of health benefits as well as helping to alleviate anxiety.”

Cameron has kindly donated his insights here. I have benefited a lot from this technique over time and am really excited to be able to share it with you.

But first, why is this seemingly basic concept so powerful?

The Science

This isn’t hippy mumbo-jumbo, this is biology 101, let’s unpack the science a little.

As we work our way through our days and weeks, we carry around with us low levels of emotional tension, anxiety and during the tougher times this can become stress. These feelings are controlled by Sympathetic Nervous System. Its not all bad. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we’re more alert and ready to respond quickly and at a moment’s notice. This is evolution’s way of preparing us for a fight or flight response.

The problem is, when we’re in this state its much harder to focus and solve problems. We think better and make better decisions when we’re relaxed.

The other problem is that spending time with our sympathetic nervous system activated is draining. Spend too much of your life like that, and you’re energy levels will disappear leaving you more easily frustrated, triggered and ultimately can lead to worse states like fatigue, burnout and even depressed-mood over time.

Deep breathing is the best way to switch off your Sympathetic Nervous System, as it engages your Parasympathetic Nervous System. This system of nerves is responsible for helping you relax. Its when you’re in a relaxed state that alpha waves kick in, you’ll solve problems better, and will be more creative.

And its easy to forget to breathe. I still catch myself shallow breathing throughout the day, as if it helps me concentrate. It doesn’t, its just a bad habit. I’ll sometimes even hold my breath during the most difficult, critical activities. Its an unintentional form of self-sabotage.

For example, I love rock-climbing, its great exercise, relaxing and fun. But I catch myself holding my breath during the trickiest moves. Why? Its instinctive, possibly to reduce the number of actions I have to coordinate or eliminate a source of movement. But what ends up happening is my muscles quickly run out of oxygen, and I fall off the wall.

Its the same in the workplace, I’ll catch myself shallow breathing or holding my breath, the results are just not as obvious. But your brain needs oxygen too, and proper breathing results in better cognitive performance.

If you don’t remember shallow breathing or holding your breath at work that’s ok. It’s not something we’re usually conscious of, but you might notice it more after reading this—thanks to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Even if you’re convinced this isn’t you, try the deep breathing technique below, if you feel more relaxed, then its working and worth continuing.

Solution: The 4 Breaths Technique

“The trick is to breathe slowly,” says Cameron. “You want your belly to expand and move outwards. Practise four belly breaths four or five times a day.”

Sit comfortably, feel the weight of your body in the chair and/or through your feet to the ground. As you breath, remember to expand your belly more than your chest.

  1. Touch your thumb to your first finger. Breathe in deeply while mentally counting to 1. Then breathe out, over a 1 count.

  2. Touch your thumb to your second finger. Breathe in deeply over a 2 count. Then breathe out over a 2 count.

  3. Touch your thumb to your third finger. Breathe in deeply over a 3 count. Then breathe out over a 3 count.

  4. Touch your thumb to your fourth finger. Breathe in deeply over a 4 count. Then breathe out over a 4 count.

You’ve completed a set! Repeat as desired.

It works!

I’ve been practising this technique for 10 months now.

  • I’ll complete a set in the shower of a morning focusing on the feeling of the water.

  • a couple of sets walking to work, focusing on my foot falls and the sounds around me.

  • once or twice throughout the day at my desk, focusing on the weight of my body in the seat and feet on the floor.

  • and on the way home, or once I’m back at home, letting go the cares of the day.

I’ve never felt better or more in control of my emotions and decisions. It really is a wonderful thing when you get over the seeming simplicity, and really lean into it.

Lastly, first things first

So, before you do anything else in your leadership journey, make belly breathing a part of your daily routine. And remember Cameron’s advice “You don’t have to go to the mountain – peace of mind is as close as your next round of four long, slow, deep breaths in.”

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