Breath and Leadership – part two

The challenge for the leader, just as the athlete, is being prepared and ready either to react or to take the initiative and change the established ground speed in order to achieve a particular effect or goal

In my previous post, I talked about the significance of breath in in the general context of leadership, particularly from the point of view of what others observe of us in day to day situations. I also observed that awareness of such matters can allow us, particularly in leadership positions, to make use of such phenomena to our advantage. In this post I will take some parallels and analogies from the world of sport, where of course breath and breathing play a very significant role.

Any sportsperson involved in activity which puts strain on the cardiovascular system will tell you that rhythm in breathing is important. Athletes like runners and swimmers in particular use rhythm in their breathing to regulate and regularise their activity, helping to maintain a particular level of performance over a period of time. This is, of course, particularly relevant for distance athletes. The parallel across to the world of leadership relates to the flow of decisions that an organisation needs in order to function well. At some level, the power of a ‘ground speed’ of predictability can be immensely empowering for a group, trusting in the overview and strategic vision of their leader, and able to both work efficiently but contribute individually inside a secure and reasonably defined framework.

This is not however a recipe for simply ‘going with the flow’ and allowing events to just happen. Maintaining such a ‘ground speed’ does not happen by itself – it needs impetus and energy from the leader, who must stay just ahead (perhaps even just ahead of where feels comfortable). The elite sportsperson knows this too, whether relating to the necessary pushing of oneself at certain points during training (but only within certain bounds), precisely on order to be able to react to competitive situations. A major tool in the box here is the breath, and the active use of it to provide a background rhythm to which to work. However, this high performance pressure also comes with risk, both in terms of pressure on the self, and on others – again it needs to be regulated. The risk relates to the lowering of quality when the rhythm is on or over the edge, where both product and message can become distorted, often resulting in suffocation of the team, the leader, or indeed both.

When done right, such a consistent framework should not stifle the creativity either of the individual employee, or of the leader: quite the reverse. The challenge for the leader, just as the athlete, is being prepared and ready either to react or to take the initiative and change that established ground speed in order to achieve a particular effect or goal. Here, rhythm and breath provide the basic scaffold, establishing the context for the new and the innovative to take place.

2012 Samsung World Rowing Cup III - Day 1

A further interesting sporting parallel here relates to competitive rowing. This is a particularly interesting case as there is close teamwork involved in a pair, four or eight, and in the instance of coxless crews, leadership from within the team. And to make things even more difficult, individuals have no eye contact possibility, as if they have a team member in front of them it is only their back that they can see. Clearly, in cases like this, synchronisation and rhythm are key to a successful crew, and over the course of a race, that rhythm will change and be changed depending on the nature of events. One key way in which rowers communicate in this endeavour is through the use of breath, often through audible breath.

The nature of rowing stroke and the development of the rhythm over the course of a race generally means that athletes can’t settle into metronomic rhythmic breath pattern. However, crews often settle into something like two breaths per stroke, exhaling during the drive, or even holding the breath during the drive with an explosive (often audible) exhale at the finish. The audible exhale at the end of the stroke can also help rowers ‘drop out’ in time, which is crucial for balancing the boat, and an unbalanced boat will never be fast or efficient. What we observe here in terms of organisational dynamics is a team of specialists who must closely co-operate in a highly structured and synchronised fashion in order to deliver a competitive result, and where the traditional forms of co-operation (eye contact, discussion, gesture etc) are not available. What is available is something more visceral and personal, something that can be harnessed and utilised in particular and powerful ways, something that is also necessary for the performance of the task itself. Breath.

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