Breathe to lead

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Leadership

I recently read an article profiling a TV presenter who had written a book about what had helped her recover from cancer.

Her main passion and saviour was walking, but she also talked about the importance of other practices including breathwork. The writer made a joke that she didn’t see how any work was required in breathing and moved on to the next paragraph.

Breathing on autopilot

In a way, the journalist is right. If you’re reading this, you’re alive which means, by definition, that you’re breathing (please check to make sure!). We do it automatically from the moment we’re born to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide – in other words, to survive.

Unfortunately, a combination of stress, a sedentary lifestyle, poor posture and working in front of a screen mean that many of us aren’t breathing well. We’re habitually breathing high up in our chest or even holding our breath, instead of breathing “properly”, from our belly.

When we’re stressed, our breathing automatically becomes fast and shallow. However, we can also activate our stress response by breathing poorly – it’s a bit like scoring a home goal.

Spot the warning signs

If my clients are talking very fast, fidgeting, restless, and maybe leaning forward, those are red flags for me that it’s likely that their breath is high and stress is in play. When I ask them where their breath is, they usually point to their throat or chest.

When they share their challenges, they’re often stressed out trying to keep on top of things and annoyed with themselves when their frustration has “leaked out” with colleagues.

A key job for me as a coach is to help them access a more resourceful state so that they can respond to challenges calmly and clearly rather than react to them – to lead better. My first port of call is breathing.

Breath : the power tool of our state

Breathing is the power tool of our state, how we feel, think and behave. Yes, it’s about the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, but it’s so much more than that : how we breathe is the only direct way we have to regulate our heart beat, which is key to the optimum functioning of our whole body-brain.

Whilst it can take only a minute or two of conscious breathing to feel calmer and clearer, I encourage my clients to commit to some sort of breathing practice whether that’s initially 5 or 10 minutes in the morning, or just before meetings. These are some examples of the difference it can make for them :

  • “Breathing is my go-to to regain control of my state. It brings me back from the edge.”
  • “Spending 10 minutes breathing first thing in the morning has helped me slow down and I feel much more in control throughout my day”
  • “Focussing on my breathing has helped me feel more confident and calm in important meetings”

Feel better, think better, lead better

Here are some suggestions to breathe more and better :

  • Nose/belly breathing. Breathe in and out through your nose a few times. Is your belly going out when you breathe in and deflating when you breathe out? If you find this hard, you might want to try the exercise in this blog.
  • The perfect breath. The optimum breathing pattern is in through the nose for 5 seconds and out through the nose for 5, though as long as it’s a fixed ratio, don’t worry too much about the number. Practise daily for 10 minutes. I use this app but you do need to buy a sensor. 
  • Box breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4, repeat for 5+ minutes. Some of my clients find this technique useful to regain a sense of control when they are feeling particularly untethered. Incidentally, apparently the Navy Seals use this to get in sync.
  • 4-7-8 breathing. This is one I use to help me get to sleep and get back to sleep. Breathe in through the nose for 4, hold for 7 (less if that’s too much) and out through the mouth for 8. The key to relaxation is a longer exhale than inhale.

Do let me know how you get on at

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps new Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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