In It Together

Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

I grew up in Oklahoma which means I can sing the state song. I’m pretty sure anyone who went to elementary school in Oklahoma can sing this song. It helps to have a state song written by Rogers and Hammerstein meaning it’s actually singable. But it’s also because every year, we sang and performed the songs we learned. This is why I can list all fifty states in alphabetical order. I just have to sorta sing it to the tune of “50 Nifty United States”. Peter thinks it’s odd that I can sing my state song. Turns out his home state, New Jersey is one of two states that doesn’t have a state song. (If you are curious about what I learned when I fell down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia on this topic, see

This memory popped up after I read the article below about the varied types of leadership needed in different kinds of crises. Scott Cowen who led Tulane University through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, shares his experiences with Katrina and COVID. Both crises, but very different in impact, duration and breadth. There are several interesting elements in the article, but what struck me is his description of Tulane and New Orleans facing a crisis while most of the country went on about life as normal. Now, of course, everyone is experiencing some version of the same crisis though we are not all experiencing it in the same way.

Cowen says this about our current situation, “being in it together is comforting from a psychological perspective, and making decisions is significantly easier when you have others who are in the same situation as you are to look to for guidance.” I think that makes complete sense. Being able to reach a trusted colleague and ask ‘what are you doing about this’ is a source of relief, good ideas, and new perspective. However, it seems to me there’s also a downside – everyone is exhausted at the same time. That’s true across the country, but it’s particularly relevant when we think about how our teams are doing in your organization. When everyone is exhausted, where do you go for support?

Which is what brought up my childhood memory. I certainly have never been in a choir sophisticated enough to practice staggered breathing so this is intellectual not experiential on my part. But it makes sense to me and I have certainly been lucky enough to be part of teams where we were able to practice ‘staggered leadership.’  (And yes, I just made that term up.)

In staggered breathing, each person takes a breath while others hold the note. On those really long notes in choral pieces, it isn’t expected that everyone be able to hold the note for the full time. Everyone holds the note to their ability and takes a breath when they need one, while also paying attention to the others around them so these breaths are staggered. Everyone shares the responsibility to make this work and no one falls out in a faint for lack of breathing.

The analogy isn’t subtle, is it? We can’t hold up our leadership responsibilities endlessly without a break. Neither can the people standing next to us. One of the reasons I suspect staggered breathing works in a chorus is that people have practiced together in preparation for the performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had developed routines or rhythms about breathing based on their experiences as they practice.

To bring the analogy fully into our leadership experience, you might ask how is your team practicing? What are you doing that allows you and the teams you are part of to learn when everyone needs to breathe. And what culture are you developing that supports people, yourself included, when they need a break? What would staggered leadership look like for your team? Have you figured out ways to give team members a chance to breathe in ways that don’t disrupt the song you are singing/work you are doing? If everyone is feeling exhausted already this semester, maybe this would be a fruitful conversation to have as a team. Would it help to find ways to think about staggered leadership as a team  rather than sort out one-to-one solutions? Everyone is having their own experience of this long-term crisis, but we’re still all in it together. Maybe it will help us to shift our thinking and lead like a choir.

As always, whatever you do – keep breathing!!

Take care,


Leave a Comment