Leadership and Breathing

Photo by Sahra Peterson on Unsplash

Audio Version

This story belongs to Sharon Justice, former AVP and Dean of Students at UT Austin, my supervisor for almost eleven years, and my friend and mentor for many more years than that. She has told me often that one of the primary lessons of her experience as a new Dean came from a conversation with the university president. Succinct and clear he told her, “Count to ten before you arrest a student.”

Arresting a student is an extreme, but certainly not unheard of example of the difficult and urgent decisions leaders need to make often on a daily basis. One of the realities of having an official leadership position is that people look to you in times of crisis and they want answers now. Leaders are supposed to be decisive, aren’t they? When added together those two expectations can make it difficult not to jump. Making a decision, any decision takes the pressure off the leader and often the responsibility away from the other people in the organization. And yet, it is rare that we face a situation that truly needs an instant answer. In my experience, our decisions often benefit from counting to ten. Or in other words, taking a breath.


Breathing in leadership has many facets. Counting to ten before you react to the emotion in a situation – yours or others – is one example. But I’m recommending that as you count to ten, what you really do is stop for a moment and focus on your breathing. Counting to ten while gritting your teeth isn’t what is needed here. Counting to ten and having that time be one full inhalation and exhalation will help you be calmer, more clear-headed, and more able to see, hear and feel a wider range of emotions and perspectives. Allowing yourself to take a deep breath or two or three when everyone and everything is pressuring you to act now is an important leadership skill. It helps leaders make better decisions in tough circumstances and feel more confident in those decisions.

But breathing has its place outside of emergencies and trying times. Taking time to focus on the breath throughout a normally busy day is important as well. I know if more of us took the time to stop during the day and give ourselves a moment to focus on our breath, we would feel better at the end of the day. If we took a ‘breather’ and walked outside for five minutes between meetings we would be better participants in each meeting or conversation.


Right now as I write this and most of us are working from home, we don’t even have the natural break of walking across campus to the next meeting or around the building to go to the restroom. This means we have to think about taking the breath, taking the break. For those of you who wear an Apple Watch, you might turn the app back on that reminds you to breathe for a minute and actually follow its guidance. If you don’t have that tool, set an alarm to remind you to get up and move and when you do, focus on your breath and coordinate it with your movement. (You can cue up the meditation from March 26th for a reminder on a way to do this.)

Work is challenging. Our world is challenging us in new ways these days and each of us has to find ways to support ourselves, our families, and the people we work with. We are all called to be leaders now more than ever. And I know that taking time to breathe will help us feel better and do better as we navigate both the present and the future. So, find time in your day to count to ten and breathe deeply.

Take care


Meditation on Marge Piercy’s poem, “the seven of pentacles”

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