Breathing in Combat

Last week I held a very basic self-defense workshop for the City of Calgary Waterworks division. Now some of you might be wondering why a leadership coach / consultant would teach a self-defense course. First of all, it’s fun, but second of all as the Olympics show us, intense physical challenges teach us something deeply important about the human spirit.

Although self-defense is not a sport, think of what it takes to manage fear in a crisis situation. When faced with a life-threatening situation, people experience not only a flight or fight response, but also a third more deadly “freeze” response. Higher level brain functions shutdown and primal instincts take over.

In leading ourselves, we may not face life and death situations all the time, but we often experience situations that overwhelm us. You know it when you feel panic or extreme anger or any loss of emotional control. In other words, your higher brain functions shutdown.

How do we bring our emotions back under control? In combat, soldiers are taught “combat breathing”. Breathe in deeply, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out and hold for three seconds. By slowing down their heart rate, they can regain control of their thinking ability.

Believe it or not, this works for controlling our emotions as well. Give it shot! Next time you feel the stress, the anger, the panic… breathe.

What’s the Security in Risk-Taking?

Any transformation in life direction begins with a choice to risk failure, and inevitably, the topic of “risk-taking” comes up. The counter-balance to risk-taking is “security”. One might hear, if not in these exact words, “I don’t like to take risks, because I value security.”

Unfortunately, words have a nasty tendency to hide layers of meaning underneath them and thus imprison us in our assumptions of what they mean.

Security is a word associated with safety and comfort and freedom from danger. Whereas risk-taking is associated with the opposite: ‘un-safety’, discomfort, and danger. Association with danger however doesn’t tell us anything about the purpose of risk. What is it really?

To begin with, a risk is the anything that involves the possibility of danger whether physically, emotionally, financially, or even morally. From the moment we are born, there is a risk of getting sick, getting hurt, getting killed, or making mistakes. Thus we are all risk-takers because life is inherently dangerous. Being “risk-free” is always an illusion. Therefore, the question whether of whether one likes or dislikes taking risk is less important than the question of whether we have the capability to make judgments about those dangers.

Risk-taking is what kids do when they are climbing a tree or balancing themselves on a wall without a safety net. They do it because they are testing the limits of their judgment and skills. And by testing their limits, they not only strengthen their skills, but also learn how to handle new challenges. In this way, good risk-taking is something that builds up the judgment and resilience muscles. On the other hand, gambling on slot machines builds up very little capability and judgment and thus it could be said to be a “bad” risk.

Life becomes risky when we do not build up our ability to deal with danger. Yet to build up our ability to deal with danger requires us to expose ourselves to progressively greater levels of danger. If you want to become a better firefighter, you have to learn how to make decisions in dangerous circumstances. If you want to be successful in relationships, you must open yourself up to being vulnerable. If you want to learn how to survive in tough economic times, then you must be willing to become entrepreneurial.

In the end, life is always changing and moving, so what is the insecurity of not taking risks? The insecurity is that if you have not fed yourself on a steady diet of “danger”, when the real danger arrives, you will be ill-equipped.

Don’t lead a risky life. Take risks that stretch you physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally so that you can train and prepare yourself for life!

Three Ways NOT to Respond When Lost


Checkout Banff Centre’s Leadership Compass for my latest article titled “Three Ways NOT to Respond When Lost“. Excerpt:

“Last summer I was hiking with my friends around a lake in Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The day was beautiful with plenty of great conversations. Then someone mentioned that the lake was no longer in sight. Not to worry, we reasoned, it should be just around the bend. We were lost, but we didn’t know it yet…”

Download the whole article here, or download the Leadership Compass for 2009.

Time to Pay Extra Attention to Integrity

When times are good, it’s easy to be generous, patient, and honest. Unfortunately, the ease with which these virtues are attained leads to a kind of surface-level “goodness”. Can one be said to be courageous when the courage is never called upon? Who is an honest person that has never had to choose between his or her interests and the truth? What is kindness in prosperous times? Clearly, virtues like girders for skyscrapers must be tested for its reliability and resilience.

Lt. Watada was the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq because he believed it was an illegal war. Standing up to peers requires much higher levels of courage than facing death with peers.
Lt. Watada was the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq because he believed it was an illegal war. Standing up to peers requires much higher levels of courage than facing death with peers.

Today’s financial crisis is the first collective testing of Western society in a long time, and it is troubling to see the steep decline in ethical standards of people connected within the financial sector. A friend in the mortgage industry speculated that there will be more than a few realtors, investment advisors, and mortgage brokers who will lose their license in the coming years.

Now, more than ever, is a crucial time to remind ourselves who we want to be as a person. As you know, people under pressure tend to lose sight of the bigger picture and revert back primate kinds of behaviours. That is to say, might makes right and exploitation becomes acceptable. Do you want to be that blaming, cursing, cheating chimpanzee?

Why is it so important to pay attention to integrity? It’s not simply about following rules because some rules should be challenged and broken. Nor is it about feeling good about ourselves since there are many unproductive ways of feeling good. Integrity is important because acting in open, honest, “reality-facing” ways is what allows all of us to respond to a crisis together. Break the trust or seek only self-preservation, and we descend as a community to the warring tribes of the past.

Furthermore, we must also hold those that violate that trust to account. With the financial oligarchy on Wall Street pillaging taxpayer’s money and executives of even non-profit companies living with a sense of entitlement, these are times to pay attention to our ethical standards, not let them slide.

Short-term business survival is important, but if it is bought at the expense of the “better angels” of our nature, the business and the community surrounding it will fail in the long-run. The challenge in tough times is not just to get through it, but to get through it with dignity and self-respect and new strength.

Dive deep and swim far

“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal Entry 1838

Reading Emerson is like eating a French dessert. The flavour is rich and requires that you savour each bite. And when you do that, you enjoy it all the more. Sometimes, you just need Emerson’s prose to express what you might deeply feel.

When do you decide to free yourself from old habits, old stories, old socializations, and instead dive into the deep waters to discover truly what it means to be alive and human?