Do You Have Four Seconds to Be a Better Leader?

I’m learning a lot from my Crossfit workouts – and not just about exercise. The trainer has drilled new ideas into me. He tells me to forget about the amount of weight I’m lifting (really?) and focus on form and breathing. Most guys get form, he says, but few get breathing.

He’s teaching me how to breathe in through my nose, hold my breath for a certain number of seconds, then exhale through my mouth at a certain part of the exercise. He tells me I’m training my breath as I train my muscles. He wants me to take in as much high-quality oxygen during the exercises as I can.

My default behavior was to race from one exercise to another, huffing and puffing all the way. My trainer slowed me down and taught me to catch my breath in between, so I can be present to approach the next exercise better.

Towards the end of August, I was hearing a lot of people at the gym talking about how nice it’s going to be to be able to take a breath now that the kids were going back to school. “I’m free for the next nine months!” Everyone looked so happy to be getting some space, and time to breathe.

That got me thinking about what leadership consultant Peter Bregman wrote in his book Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.

Bregman suggests that in the time that it takes to take a deep breath in and exhale completely – four seconds – things can change dramatically. In those four seconds, we can disrupt our default counter-productive behaviors and replace them with healthier habits. It’s that simple!

What I like about this concept is that he’s not talking about creating a huge space. You don’t need to go away on a retreat or lock yourself in the bathroom. You can just sit in the car for an extra four seconds, or pause before responding to someone. Bregman says that’s long enough to catch ourselves so we’re really thinking before we act; we’re not just reacting.

We don’t have to wait until the kids are busy in school to claim this time. Sometimes it’s a matter of even remembering to breathe. With many of the leaders I coach, I’ll begin by saying “Let’s take a couple of minutes and just breathe.” Often they’ll say that was the most important part of the coaching.

We’ve all got a lot going on these days and the space in between is minimal, if any. I remember many years ago reading a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard Swenson. He asks us to imagine reading a book with no margins or indentations. Yet that’s how many of us live life. We need space to breathe.

Sometimes when I ask a leader “What’s your vision? What’s your next step towards that vision?” they say they haven’t even had time to think about these things. Coaching helps develop the ability to be present – to ourselves, and to what we want to achieve.

How you show up as a leader matters. Too often we’re showing up out of breath, living in this constant stream of thoughts where all moments just blend into each other. The next time you are tempted to begin whatever is your typical counter-productive default process, simply breathe.

By taking four seconds to breathe, we can be fully present and connect with the people around us. In an emotionally-charged situation we can give ourselves and everyone else the space we need to think clearly and respond rather than react.

Leaders of today serve the world better when they breathe.

All the best to you,

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