Pause. Think. Breathe.
Three simple, beautiful concepts that could be used to describe a leader. Yet rarely are these practices lifted up as admirable when discussing the characteristics of great leadership.
In the moments following the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic in the United States, my organization was forced to make some decisions that we would have thought unthinkable the week before. We were poised for a record year and were on the cusp of hiring another executive-level leader onto our team. The future was bold and we were ready for the road forward. And then…COVID happened. So much of what we had worked so hard for dissipated overnight. The calendar cleared of all immersive learning experiences, we were forced to drastically downsize our team, and while we felt the urge to do something, we confessed that we knew not what to do next.
And so, we paused to think and breathe. Rather than a vacation or even a break, we referred to the week as an off-the-gird, on-the-clock hiatus. It was a moment to remember. To grieve. To reflect. To imagine. To rest.
On one of those days, I ventured off one of the alpine trails that I so frequently run to look for an uncharted area. With my body, I wanted to be as off-the-grid as possible so I blazed a new trail. After a while, I found myself in a seemingly long-forgotten aspen meadow. After weeks of grueling decisions, unwanted programmatic pivots, heartbreak, and limited creative breakthroughs, I paused in the middle of a meadow as old as time. It wasn’t until then that I realized how high my internal RPM’s had been revving. Less concerned had I been throughout the immediate chaos of the pandemic to be perceived as busy and far more fixated was I on doing everything within my reach to maintain our team. It was a world-class collective comprised of irreplaceable women and men who had given so much to the mission that we all believed in.
The stillness of my external was being interrupted by the soundtrack of my internal engine. In order to ease its pace, I entered into one of the breath prayers that I had recently learned from a teammate.
With the inhale, I prayed, “Spirit of God.”
With the exhale, I prayed, “Come near.”
Inhale. Exhale. Listen.
Then something odd happened. The order shifted.
Inhale. Exhale. Listen. became Exhale. Inhale. Listen.
The exhale created desperation for the inhale. The inhale animated my senses. I was then able to listen more clearly.
The experience awakened me to what had become a pandemic practice of leadership: inhaling in order to grit my teeth, steel my resolve, do whatever it took to survive, exhale quickly, and repeat. While understandable, the inhale-in-order-to-accomplish approach wasn’t helpful and, turns out, may be a distortion.
Let me explain.
Consider the creation myth as found in Genesis 2. In this more indigenous telling of the two creation narratives, the Creator is portrayed as entering into the created order so to physically establish the form of humanity out of the soil. Quite literally, God played in the mud and humanity took shape. Once the form was present, we’re invited to imagine God exhaling divine breath into the human form. God’s exhale transformed dirt into flesh and blood and fully animated the human being’s life. God’s exhale woke up humanity and the first thing that humanity did was exhale the breath of God. After we inhaled the breath of life, we acknowledged that we were in a story that wasn’t about us, and then we listened for what was ours to do.
Exhale and remember whose we are.
Inhale the breath of life.
Listen for what’s ours to do.
Exhale. Inhale. Listen.
One day, I pray that these practices will define my life, love, and leadership.
 D’Souza & Renner, Not Doing: The Art of Turning Struggle into Ease. Kindle Location 140.