Breathing Leadership – S14.6

In Leadership for the Disillusioned (Allen & Unwin, 2007), management professor and yoga teacher, Amanda Sinclair suggests that we have constructed leadership as a disembodied activity. She focuses on the seemingly simple act of breathing to demonstrate how re-embodying leadership can bring about significant positive change in our practice. However, there a couple of stumbling blocks that must be removed in order to proceed.

First, we are not accustomed to thinking that our body has any role to play in leadership, so we must be open to a more holistic approach to both understanding and practice. Second, we think of breathing as something that we do automatically, without having to think about it, or interfere with it. We must learn to engage in conscious purposive breathing, taking control of the taken-for-granted and learning to use it to our advantage, rather being a victim to the changes in our breathing that come about in response to the situations we encounter on a daily basis.

Very often when we are concentrating or feeling stressed we will be breathing in a very shallow manner, or even holding our breath. Sinclair suggests that we take some advice from negotiation specialist Tom Fisher, who said that we should learn to STOP, an acronym that stands for stop what you’re doing, take a conscious breath, observe bodily sensations, and then proceed. Employing this technique heightens our state of awareness and shifts us out of reaction mode, increasing our capacity to connect with others.

Of course, there are numerous breathing exercises that can be learned, which not only have positive physiological effects like lowering heart rate, increasing oxygen supply to the blood, and aiding digestion, but we become more aware of our physical presence and actually provide the appropriate physiological state to allow for mindfulness and an extended appreciation of our surroundings. Sinclair has experimented with starting her management and leadership classes with a few minutes of breathing exercises. Students were reluctant at first, sometimes out of embarrassment and sometimes because they thought it was a waste of time, but the benefits were quickly apparent, and the practice became part of the routine.


About Robert A. Campbell, PhD

Robert A. Campbell, PhD, teaches courses in change management, leadership, and organizational behavior, as part of the MBA program in community economic development, for the Shannon School of Business at Cape Breton University.
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32 Responses to Breathing Leadership – S14.6

  1. Hope says:

    I need to learn to breathe more often. I work in an environment where we are always responding to one crisis or another. I often go home exhausted from the task whiplash, and constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    I think encouraging breathing in the workplace is a small, but important thing to encourage. The scientific evidence of the benefits can’t be argued with. If a team cannot be convinced to do it, individuals should remind themselves to breathe deeply (set an alarm if needed) at least a couple of times throughout the day.

    There are days where I would love to have a yoga room, a place where staff can go do a few sun salutations, or lay in savasana (corpse pose) and breathe deeply. Hardwood floors, low lighting, and soothing music if desired. Having a quiet place to get away from the frenzy and stress would also allow people to relax and breathe more deeply and ultimately, improve work relationships and decision making.

    • Shan Sun (Sunshine) says:

      Breathing is one of the few things we can do since we are born, so we take for granted that breathing is just a basic body function. We hardly realize the importance of breathing untile yoga popularizes, which makes us to relate breathing to physiological state. Now we need to learn how to use breathing to reduce stress and exhaustion from our work. I do agree with Hope that we need some quiet room to get away from the hustles and bustle. Maybe doing the yoga or even meditation for several minute can help a lot in our interpersonal relatioship and working capabilities. Moreover, breathing consciously is also a good way to do the self-reflection, for both leaders and followers.

  2. Shan Sun (Sunshine) says:

    It was difficult for me, in the beginning,to relate breathing to leadership. Perhaps, it was an another product labeled leadership. As a matter of fact, breathing leadership makes sense to me. It is very true that we are not in habit of thinking that our body can play in role in leadership. I have been taught that leadership in kind  of influence, mostly originating from inside. So that breathing, the very basic physical  activity that every one can do, can be used in nurturing better leadership, is very attractive.
    I do like the point that we should hold a deep breath when we are stressed and learn how to STOP. To many times happened in my life when problems come, I thought that I need to solve them immediately without any stop. Any waiting  for me is a  waste of time. But just imagine that, if we do stop appropriately, take a deep breath, calm down and look around, some important things can go faster than we do not stop. A faster move does not necessarily mean a quick and desirable result. Controlling our breath , just like when doing yoga, can effectively affect our mood, ability and presence. It is a good advice not just for leaders but also for followers. 


    • Lucy DI says:

      This to me is a very difficult to understand perspective. Despite understand the point of view of the theory, I still difficult to link breathing and Leadership. So I totally understand how you feel. Just as Sunshine said, breathing is our innate physical ability, we make connect of breath and Leadership, perhaps explained when people desire to improve leadership skills, leadership training courses prowl, need to focus on about themselves, whether the nature of some of our own abilities and have, it can be helpful to our leadership. Then, we can consider by way of breathing, stop and think about ourselves, give our bodies an intermittent time, this interrupted will not affect the progress of the work, but it will promote the progress of efficiency.

    • Fifi (ZIQING WANG) 20132445 says:

      I agree with what you said, of course breathing is just a natural habit for every living things. Although it looks like a normal action for people, but how to connect breathing with leadership is still a little bit weird for me. However, from article said, we must be open to a more holistic approach to both understanding and practice. Just like put the leadership role automatically in the daily life. For example, a man can be a leader in the working environment, also can be a father in a family, can be a son for his parents. One person can plays different role in every day’s life. This is without prepared.

  3. Lucy DI says:

    I agree with concern the relationship between the body, breath and work. Like a fish swim in the water, it may not feel the presence of water, but water for fish are the most important, even in relation to life. A simple example, before making a public speech that people tend to take a deep breath, take a deep breath is not just to make us release pressure, is to give people time to rethinking through a deep breath and relax from the perspective of the body. Allen as a yoga teacher and management professor, from the practical point of view of people’s body, found in the most natural way to get people to strengthen the efficiency of work and life are very helpful. Unique Leadership breathing is that it is essentially people’s departure from the body, to give people the opportunity to stop and think, to stop the busy work, and further thoughts, that “stop”, giving people more opportunity to reflect and success opportunities.

    • Saud Alhowaish says:

      I agree with Lucy that taking a deep breath can help to release pressure, rethink and relax as well as effects on work efficiency. Every leader may face a complicated situation, therefore a deep breath can make them clam down and stop thinking for a few minutes may bring new notions and opportunities.
      I also believe that controlling the level of breathing and having a deep breath before having public speech, negotiating business and talking or motivating followers can reduce pressure and stress of leaders, and it also reflects on their voice, confidence and trait of leadership.

  4. Norm Hubbert says:

    Looks to me like she is inserting her passion for yoga into the $4 Billion Leadership industry as a means of promoting yoga. I attended a seminar by Dr Gabor Mate author of “When the Body Says No”. The is a significant amount of evidence that stress is harmful to the body and that breathing techniques can help your body reduce stress. Strangely enough his seminar was about change management and stress- Change Management was the big craze. He adapted his seminar to discuss change management and the impact of stress for leading change, he also had books for sale after the seminar.
    I’m sure that Amanda Sinclair will have some opportunity to sell yoga lessons after the leadership course. This is a large stretch for me to link the two elements- yoga and leadership. Breathing techniques are useful to all, I’m not convinced that it will enhance leadership beyond the natural benefit to everyone. Note that 100% of studies have indicated that breathing is required.

    • Kathy Luo says:

      I agree your point that people want to take advantages for their own. But practicing “breathing” does not mean doing yoga every day. What I am thinking is, if someone could control the breath well, they can control their body in different moods. That also means, you can make decision as a leader in a more flexible way. You would not rush when being anger because using breathing to relax. Motion cannot be avoided but we can control it through good breathing, in order to make decision more precise—-which is the value part of this article.

    • Peggy V. says:

      I agree with you on that Norm. It does seem like a stretch to link the two. Its an individual plan for sure and can be helpful to people in leadership positions. Breathing exercises are effective when woking with people with complex emotions. It aids in re-establishing mood. It is used frequently in a therapeutic psychological environment as a tool but it does not replace therapy. I think people who are interested in the world around them and are cognizant of others and want to expand ideas such as a perceived leader would be can benefit from this helpful tool.

    • Sohaila A. says:

      Thank you Norm. I agree with you all the way! I believe if she was a math teacher her article would be “Count from One to Ten and become a good Leader” or if she was an artist “Draw the Leader inside You” or a dancer “Dance Your Leadership Out!”
      My thoughts here is that this method is extremely poor. Learning how to breathe has always been good we all know that!..she didn’t discover rocket science.

      • Christine G says:

        Sohaila, you concisely explained what I was thinking! Are we becoming skeptics or critical thinkers? A little of both in this case… What she has proposed isn’t rocket science, I believe it is health and wellness 101. Ok , maybe that comment was a little too skeptical.

  5. Saud Alhowaish says:

    Many people think that is it easy to control breathing, but I take the view that it is difficult. Because the breathing rhythm has many levels which depend on the situation that we are facing.
    In order to be a successful leaders, we have to learn how to control our emotions before controlling the games. So that, when we face with difficult situations, as leadership status we can control the situation and build confidence through our followers.
    Additionally, there are many courses for learning and practicing how to control our breathing; such as yoga, meditation and so on. These can bring the delibreration, sedation and providence to leaders. I also believe that if leader can control the breathing rhythm to be constant therefore when they have nevousness and panic, so those will not show through physical conditions. Thus, they can lead followers and negotiate or deal with their competitors.

    • meaghancc says:

      Thanks, Saud. I’m struck by your phrase: In order to be a successful leaders, we have to learn how to control our emotions before controlling the games. I totally agree. It prompts me to think of a small child who is having a fit or crying, and a parent asking them to calm down and take a deep breath. Or as an adult even, getting advice to catch our breath and give us a moment to think. So I think it’s totally related to what you’re saying and a core part of being a functional human being in society, yet alone a leader!

  6. Kathy Luo says:

    Breathing is not only an action to me. Our physical status and psychological experience are always related, in my opinion. Neither breathing nor leadership should be separated from each other. I do not agree with Amanda who says leadership has be constructed as a disembodied activity. By using the easiest example to explain, leadership can be instantiated as a kind of temperament which is showed by body movement. However I do agree with her that if we approve our physical condition, like to practice breathing which can have positive physiological effects like lowering heart rate, increasing oxygen supply to the blood. It also may effectively improve the leadership that to be more clear in mind, or more incisive in actions.

  7. Julia Yusuf says:

    While Amanda thinks leadership has been constructed as disembodied activity, I argue that we have described leadership in too many ways, because leadership has to be exercised under a certain circumstance, and this circumstance keep changing rapidly. In this respect, maybe it’s impossible for us to analyze all kinds of leadership in different places. But it does not necessarily mean leadership is a disembodied concept. I think the concept of leadership will become more and more mature and rich in both concept and activity as human society develops.

    Thinking about the far reaching relationship between breathing and leadership, I prefer to simplify it into the relationship between STOP and leadership. Yes! It’s a good idea to make a stop, when employees feel exhausted during OT, when employees push themselves too hard to tasks only, and when people want to review and revise. In the office, if employees feel too tired, productivity will drop significantly, then it’s better to have someone to say, “Teatime, take a break.” If collaboration is weak in the office, it is better to have someone to remind people that it is worth to stop working on tasks and rebuild our collaborative atmospheres in the office. If people found the previous idea is not working very well, it’s better to have someone stops employees working hard towards a wrong direction. There are lots of other circumstances that we need someone to lead a STOP, and this is what I think breathing leadership is.

    • Norm Hubbert says:

      Bingo! The relationship between yoga and leadership is tenuous at best. Yes it is important to stop and regroup. Sinclair is stretching the point to link yoga. May as well draw the link between eating and leadership. It’s important to have a good meal- it can affect your attitudes, thinking process and therefore your leadership style. By this continued logic almost everything links to your leadership. Brushing your teeth is a leadership skill, mowing the lawn etc. Julia makes the excellent point to call out the complexity and varied understanding of leadership. Not a simple subject so everything can be linked to it.

  8. Peggy V. says:

    While I agree that breathing exercises, yoga and other practices can enhance what we do day to day, I do think that it exists as a tool the same as a healthy diet and daily exercise. The benefits are great for the individual and can lead to better cognitive abilities, mood and physical presence. I would be more apt to use breathing techniques to work with mindfulness as a personal journey not as a component of leadership development. I think of it as a way to simply lead yourself.

    Sinclair suggests that we have constructed leadership as a disembodied activity. I think she would agree on the idea that principles of leadership can be found from within. However, in its absence, can someone still be a leader? I would think so. I imagine a person having their own personal practice that helps them.

    • Amna says:

      Peggy! I so much agree with you that yoga can act as a component for leadership and as a personal development tool. It is not a complete 1 day crash course to leadership. Leadership has many components and layers to it. I would argue it is like an implicit theory. You don’t know about this because it is naturally embedded in you. It automatically shows up in your personality just as your culture or lifestyle. Breathing can certainly calm you down and makes your leadership skills better.

  9. meaghancc says:

    I’m interested in this topic, as it approaches leadership in a more holistic way, or looking at the whole person–mind and body–are the leader. In a way that’s similar to what I posted earlier this week around how different stances can prep someone to take charge, I agree what the author is suggesting about breathing and its ability to allow a person to focus, calm the mind and all the noise that surrounds decision-making, lower stress and sustain life. Frankly, the only thing we have COMPLETE control over is our breath. That enough should motivate some people to stop and focus on it. There is one particular breathing exercise that’s part of Pranayama that is a part of Ayurvedic medicine; it involves closing and opening each nostril while breathing in and out through the nose. Because it engages both lobes of the brain, neither one can particularly go off and think about something else. This allows focus after the breathing exercise is done.

    In a leadership training I completed, we started each day with 2-3 minutes of medication and breathing, and yes, despite the initial knee-jerk reaction of people wanting to just dive right in, we all agreed we were better off to dive in after this practice.

  10. Dave says:

    This idea makes sense, on a physiological level and in regards to leadership. I think a technique that allows for a pause and that allows one to better assess one’s own state and the surroundings is valuable. I think composure is a key part of leadership. (If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…) Taking a deep breath before blurting out something ill-considered is a great habit to develop. And I think a good reputation can be built up if people recognize that a leader’s first reaction is not to lash out but to consider all sides.

    • Julia Yusuf says:

      I agree with you Dave that composure is a key part of leadership. If we can keep calm we can perform well on emotional control and self-management. Once we can manage ourselves, we can have a better chance to exercise leadership well. The only concern I have is that whether the policy and procedure of an organization will allow a leader to have a stop in such a fast-paced world. If leaders are defeated by time pressure, It’s hard for them to keep composure.

      • Dave says:

        I think you raise a legitimate concern about whether policy and procedure will allow for pauses. Breathing techniques might be something that an individual might have to take upon his or herself to make part of the work day (or life in general). It seems like something you can do at your desk. But I too doubt that businesses will adopt breathing and yoga classes widely.

  11. Sohaila A. says:

    As many of us agree on this topic here… Breathing is good for you? Yes definitely! Does it have anything to do with Leadership in particular? No!
    As I read this article though I remembered something I watched on TV the other day about how meditation could help put an end to bullying in schools and that if kids knew how to relax and focus their minds they won’t blow out or react with anger in many situations. Also researches and experiments have shown that regular meditation and mind relaxation impacts the level of attention and emotion regulation, and that people who meditate have a higher tolerance and react much more calmly to stress. I could relate these points somehow to Sinclair’s idea that better breathing can be a benefit in making a leader function better…but so does meditation, good sleep and a lot of other good habits (that are not related to her yoga classes)

    • Xujun Huang (Lilian) says:

      I agree that breathing have positive effects on people, but I disagree that breathing doesn’t have anything to do with leadership in particular. Conversely, I think breathing can stimulate leadership to a higher level. Breathing provides time and space for individual to recall their normal state awareness, because those who are closely involved usually can’t not see clearly, especially decision makers. Although it is the situation experienced by most of the staff, including everybody in the organizational hierarchy. However, few people applied breathing leadership to their routine, therefore, I think more connections could be built up to link breathing leadership and management to work more closely, because it plays a key role in increasing people’s capacity and effectiveness in dealing with daily problems, as well as strengthening individual’s physiological effects and psychological state, successfully in releasing their stress from different daily tasks and management.

    • Hope says:

      I do think the ability to be self-aware enough to know when you need to step back and put yourself in “time out” is a mark of a good leader. I know many people in leadership roles who don’t know how to do that it causes people to be more skittish and unsure of them.

      It’s not necessarily that they use Amanda’s “STOP” practice, meditation, yogic breathing, but that they know when they need a few minutes to themselves so they can assess themselves, their emotions, and how to best approach the situation.

  12. Amna says:

    I see myself relating to this article. I remember to start my first presentation and getting all nervous. It was because I was not breathing deeply. It was a shallow breath. Deep breathing makes us relax, focus well and therefore brings better results. I gradually learned to deep breath and slowly progressing on the chart of self-confidence and more brighter attitude towards learning. Deep breathing is certainly an important aspect of human personality that can add its value to a deeper layer of leadership. It may not help you come to become effective and efficient leader but it will slowly help you to overcome nervousness and bring more clarity while you are speaking. If you notice, many well-known leaders are known for their speaking styles because they know how to use breathing to their advantage and make their voice stronger, deeper and charismatic. It adds a strong layer to a successful leader.

    • Little Deng says:

      Interesting. I assume that singers and swimmers may have a better chance to become a successful leader since they know how to breath well. I do agree the idea that deep breathing can strengthen people’s speaking skill and eventually contribute to shaping a leader. In addition, I think it is also, or even more important, to help other people to make a deep breathing. I consider influence as one of the most important characteristics of a leader. If we successfully influence others’ way of practicing even a simple action like breathing, don’ you think we have some potential to become a good leader?

  13. Little Deng says:

    I can see the value of breathing leadership. To stop and see what we have done can help us to make a clearer view of future. However, I argue that modern businesses can’t afford to stop and think. Instead, most of them actually walk and think. Since the world is changing fast, companies may suffer from significant loss of market share if they spend too many time stalling and thinking. So I think breathing leadership mentioned in this article is only and ideal idea. I encourage someone to develop another breathing leadership model. That is to take a quick breath before we are drowned in the ocean instead of taking a casual breath in yoga.

  14. Xujun Huang (Lilian) says:

    After reading this, I think the breathing leadership is necessary to be taken into account in daily routine, because it not only make contribution to individual’s psychological process, recalling one’s consciousness state, but also plays an important role in creating physiological effects. I entirely understand why my mom reminds me to take a deep breath every time when I am under stress. As a Chinese child, there are a lot of certificates and exams during our study career. Besides, I was the host in the school’s ceremony, and I was also a member of the glee club in primary school. It was important for me to learn how to breathe every time before I step on the platform or entering the examination room. From my experience and the examination done by Sinclair, I can tell it is very beneficial to individuals. With heightened state awareness, people tend to move oneself from reaction mode more easily. Moreover, when stopping engaging in the things we feel stressed, it provide more time for us to rethink and even ask for help from others. This re-embodying process is very important and should become a daily routine in organization. However, how to break the embarrassment phenomenon that individual might feel at the very beginning seem to be a key point, because once they experienced the benefits brought by breathing leadership, they will believe in it and let it become their daily routine, start to breath automatically.

  15. Christine G says:

    Breathing Leadership…..hum. OK, I am trying to open my mind and make the connections. I 100% agree that people who meditate and practice yoga do it because they realize certain benefits but I think this one belongs in the category of personal choice. I don’t think we start our day as a group doing this in the workplace but I would support this if an employee wanted to start their day doing this. I think we all have individual practices, routines and rituals for health, wealth or spiritual well-being and as soon as we start integrating these practices and philosophy’s to the masses then we lose focus and even risk offending people. We have a social committee and an employee engagement committee and they both host events – walking club, weight watchers, pot luck lunches and celebrations. Our Deputy recently started “walk/run with the Deputy” to encourage people in health to be more health focused and to take time during the work day to focus on individual health. Recently a Therapy Dog visited and anyone feeling stressed was encouraged to attend. We also have a quiet room for people needing a break during the day or not feeling well and we have a shower/change room for the walkers, runners, bikers and gym participants. These are all great initiatives and people can experiment, but it needs to be an individual’s choice.

  16. Fifi (ZIQING WANG) 20132445 says:

    In this article, Amanda Sinclair suggests that we have constructed leadership as a disembodied activity. What she means is just like act leadership as every day’s thing, without thinking. There is an example, breathing. Breathing is a daily activity for every living organism, plants, animals, humans. However, no one really realize how important it is, because every one already used to it. So, it is a good way to enhance company’s performance if a leader can use leadership skills automatically.
    Amanda also suggests to STOP when you feel anxiety and stressed. This is what we often ignore when the problems come. However, when you STOP for a while then look back, you will feel more easier and probably will find a good way to fix problems. This is the reason why yoga so popular in this time, after I did yoga, physically my body feels more relax and my bring feels more clear. Somehow, connect yoga with leadership is really novel way and worth a try.

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