Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane (Part 2): Catching One’s Breath

Six weeks ago, I posted the first installment of “Leading In The Eye of the Hurricane,” a five-part series on crisis leadership. I knew then that big change was afoot, though I’m not sure many of us knew how hard the winds of change would blow.

The word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘separation.’ A crisis is any event that fundamentally separates what is from what used to be. Whether we see this disruptive event as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it shakes up our habitual notions of reality, identity, meaning, possibilities and what/whom we can count on. You may see the Presidency of Donald Trump as the edge of Doomsday or a floodgate of opportunity. Either way, this is a time of crisis, in the sense that it’s a profound separation from what has been. And you are leading in it.

In Part 1 of this series, I mapped out four essential tasks for crisis leadership: catching one’s breath; confronting what’s happening now; connecting to what’s essential and enduring; and charting the next right step.

This post focuses on the first of those tasks: catching one’s breath.

Whether perilous or auspicious (or both), a crisis is a stormy time when the winds of change howl at hurricane force. For most of us, the instinct is to jump into the swirl and do something. Have you had any experience with that in the past couple of months? If so, you may have noticed a lot more activity than productivity, because we’re often taking action from an off-balanced place.

People are intently looking to you for What To Do, so it can be counterintuitive to slow down and get still. But that’s exactly what’s needed, because your wisest action will arise from your deepest center. Most leaders agree on the utility of entering stillness, yet most say it’s a lot easier said than done.

First you have to notice when you’re in the frazzled fray, so you can recognize when to pull back. The signs of being off-center are different for everyone, but can include:

  • an inability to sleep, and/or chronic exhaustion that is not improved by rest
  • increased irritability
  • confusion or overwhelm
  • obsessive thinking and/or engagement in media
  • a change in eating or drinking habits (e.g., consuming more carbs, fat and alcohol)

Even if you notice these symptoms in yourself, you may tend to override or gut through them. But these signs are actually your greatest allies, because they’re telling you that you’re probably not at your best. Heed them as a call to pause.

Leaders often tell me, “I know I need to take a minute to get myself right, but I don’t have the time.” As compelling as that narrative is, it’s counterproductive. Most of us think ‘pausing’ means taking a huge time out: a trip to the Carribean, a retreat to the mountains… But who has time for that? In times of wild change, leaders need to come back to center over and over while on the run – much like tennis players return to a balanced stance after every stroke.

The most accessible pause button is the breath. Slowing and lowering the breath, even for 30 seconds, changes your inner circuitry. It stills the inner winds. It lowers anxiety and returns oxygen to the brain. With oxygen comes clearer thinking.

Try it right now. For the next 60 seconds, relax the muscles in your belly. Gently inhale for four slow counts and exhale for six, letting your belly passively receive and become empty of breath. As you do this, see if you can rest your attention simply on the gentle sensation of that process. At the end of that minute, compare how you feel now vs. a minute ago.  What do you notice?

If you have more than one minute to pause, by all means take it. Take lunch and eat good food. Take a walk around the block between meetings. Listen to a piece of music you love. Get in the pool or the gym. Leave work on time for once. Take a mental health day. Take a social media sabbatical for an hour or two. The goal is to interrupt the spinning so that you can find your ground.

Once you’ve found the stillness of the eye of the hurricane, it’s crucial to get grounded before you go back into the fray. Because if you’re not reengaging from your center, then you’ll reengage from a place of stress. Which, I’m going to guess, may not be you at your best.

In the chaos of disruption, where do you turn to remember who you are, what you stand for and what really matters? Maybe you find your ground in a personal mission statement or a set of core values. Maybe you find it in a tenet or practice from your faith tradition. Maybe nature is what grounds you. Maybe a favorite writer, poet or musician helps you find your center. Maybe your friends or family bring you back.

Where and how you get grounded is a deeply personal and intimate thing. What matters is that you know where your ground is and you know how to find it. The more chaotic the environment, the more often you need to return to your center.

What about you?

Most leaders agree that catching their breath is vital in disruptive times.  Yet so few of them actually do it. What about you? How are you at ‘finding the eye?’ If your answer is “Not so great,” what stops you from doing what you know is so important? Maybe it’s a bit of arrogance: a tacit belief that you, uniquely, can lead with mastery while off balance. Maybe a sense of powerlessness: a sense that you would catch your breath if you could, but conditions won’t permit it. Maybe it just feels self indulgent. Or maybe you just never learned how.

Start somewhere. What is one action you can take today to lead more skillfully in the hurricane of crisis?  Who will support you in carrying that out?


2 replies
  1. Becky Ripley
    Becky Ripley says:

    Terrific advice, as always, Leslie. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and helping me “return to center.”

  2. Cari Simon
    Cari Simon says:

    Excellent, thoughtful ideas expressed in clear, beautiful writing. It would be nice if our politicians would follow your advice of coming into stillness, then make big decisions. Keep it going, Leslie!!!

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