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Breath and Leadership – Part One | Exart Performances

Breath and Leadership – Part One

A leader who stands well and breathes well will also speak well, and carry an authority that brings people with them. The open breath can also be an invitation, an inclusive action that comes literally from within the leader.

Breath. It is fundamental to our lives as living, breathing human beings. We do it without thinking about it. And yet breath is also key in other ways if we can train ourselves to be more conscious of it, its potential and its effects on ourselves and on others. At one level, breath can be a window into the state of mind of an individual, an indicator of high stress, a marker of relaxation, a marker of overall health and well-being. It is for this reason, among many others, that so much therapeutic training (whether based on methods of yoga, Tai Chi or mindfulness) focuses on ideas around the breath. However, breath can also be used in a much more active way to influence others, and it is this side that I will be exploring over this series of short articles.

Anyone who has been on a management or leadership course in recent years will have experienced something of the current trend towards including some form of meditation in such programmes. Research is growing here, and the cast of vocal supporters is both glittering and significant. A simple Google search throws up myriad pages of advice, articles, meditation tracks, courses, all recommended by this FTSE 100 CEO, or that Fortune 500 Director. What I’m interested in here is that many use the idea of taking time out, or pausing ‘for breath’, as well as including some content which relates to the physical breath itself, whether that is the superficial ‘take a deep breath before you speak’, or the more involved ‘meditate to succeed’ premise. However, few if any seem to take the next step towards application to others. It is all self-centred. This is not necessarily a criticism, as meditation is, by its very nature, focussed on the individual, but there is another angle here. The common ground here is consciousness of the breath and its nature as the starting point.


Let us put ourselves in the position of the observer here, rather than the practitioner of the breath. What can we learn about someone else from how they breathe, and what lessons are there for ourselves about the effects of our own breath on others? Is the breathing short and shallow, or long and deep? Is there obvious tension around the chest, shoulders and throat from the act of breathing? How does that relate to posture? Does if affect the quality of the voice? Subconscious clues perhaps that we can read as part of observing the body language of another, but clues that we might beneficially move to the conscious level, both in a perceptual and active fashion.

Singers and actors face these questions and challenges every day of their working lives, and can offer useful insight here. Both are professional voice users, and need to be aware of anything that can either affect their vocal production, or that they can actively use to affect that production, depending on the context. For an actor, being able to read and interpret such body language is key, which is one reason why workshops on presentation skills are so often assisted by actors. However, going right back to the physical aspect of taking in and expelling air from the lungs allows the tracing of certain unconscious behaviours (like raising the shoulders when breathing) that are both personally unhelpful, and can transmit negative messages to those able to read them. Something as simple as standing up to make that difficult phone call can make a noticeable difference, as here the posture is typically better, and the breath typically more grounded, which positively affects the timbre of the voice.

Some of this is about perception and confidence, but there is also something about authenticity going on here. A leader who stands well and breathes well will also speak well, and carry an authority that brings people with them. The open breath can also be an invitation, an inclusive action that comes literally from within the leader. This is not about ‘acting the part’, but about connecting with oneself and one’s breath, and being aware of the messages that are transmitted as a result. Again, both consciousness of an action and its potential are important, particularly in such positions of leadership.

This is one further area where the power of experiential learning is difficult to overplay. In these contexts, we need the feedback of an outsider to assist our consciousness of our own actions, and to point out where those actions can and do have ramifications. However far we study ‘the theory’, it is this personal interaction which acts as the key catalyst for deep-rooted learning experiences of this kind where such actions can be overtly rehearsed, and where the arts can provide a varied and insightful canvas.

Over the coming series of short articles, I will further explore these ideas around breath and leadership in contexts as different as conducting and sport, and also look at what we can learn from the etymological history of the concepts and words that we use in this area. Such comparators can provide significant insight, opening a window into human interaction for us all to observe, learn from and use.

About author
Singer, conductor, consultant. Director of Musica Beata, and Exart Performances partner.
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