Breathing Space

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This past week I was working with a team at an inflection and reflection point. Like so many, this team is under incredible pressure to deliver business results – and at the same time completely transform the organization. The team is struggling with how to focus on the cultural activities so critical to sustain the transformation. The temptation is to focus on delivering the work and not save time to drive culture across the organization. The senior leader emphasized that they had to do both. That the culture work was oxygen that would sustain the organization. Without it, their fire would die out. The two cannot exist or succeed without each other. It reminded me of this poem by Judy Brown about this very topic I was introduced to years ago by a colleague:


What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,
too many logs packed in too tight
can douse the flames almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces in the same way
we have learned to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time
A fire grows simply because the space is there,
with openings in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

So often in work, our “bias to action” causes us to pack in so much that we don’t leave intentional time for reflection. This is like building a fire with the logs packed in so tight that oxygen can’t flow. Oxygen that is critical for breathing space to keep the fire strong. Bias for action doesn’t mean all action is equal. It means that we move forward and deliver upon key outcomes. The only way to do that is to intentionally reflect.

Reflection is how you learn, grow, and explore ideas. It is how you solve problems and learn about yourself. It is how you improve your effectiveness, hone your style, learn to address conflict, and how to be resilient. You don’t grow as a leader without reflecting. Yet this is one thing for which people rarely budget time. It is the job of the leader to help his/her employees reflect…to ensure they have enough oxygen to sustain their fire burning brightly. Everyone has times in their career where their fire gets weaker, or perhaps is only glowing embers. Reflection allow us to add oxygen and fan the flames. 

A GE Executive told a leadership class that he spends 30% of his time thinking. That reflection time allows him to be successful, learn and grow. I bet most of us struggle to build 5% reflection time into our weeks – let alone 30%. The challenge comes when deadlines loom, unexpected events pop up and the pressures to lead a balanced life grow - reflection is often the first thing cut. There are seven things you can intentionally plan to incorporate more reflection into your work:

  1. Start your meetings with one minute of silence: Try this– even virtual sessions. Ask everyone to shut down all email, put down phones, close laptops and sit quietly for one minute to collect their thoughts. Invite people to close their eyes if they choose. This allows people to transition and begin to focus on the purpose of meeting.

  2. Build time into your project plans and meetings to pause and reflect: What have we learned up to this point? Why was this successful? Why was this not successful? Include one reflection question into each meeting to help your team learn and grow from one another as they move forward.

  3. Include reflection questions into touchpoints and coaching conversations: The most important role of the people manager is to coach employees to reflect. Questions like “What did you learn from this? Why do you think X happened? What will you do differently next week?” will help an employee broaden his/her thinking, awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and how to implement changes going forward.

  4. Write a letter to your younger self (or to a child in your life): What would you say to the 20-year-old version of yourself? Or to a child in your life? What have you learned in your professional career? How would you describe your leadership style? Why do people choose to work with you? How do you navigate challenges? A question I often use coaching others is “What would you tell your son/daughter/ niece/nephew to do in this situation?” People immediately gain clarity about their own situation.

  5. Set aside 5-10 min each morning to journal: Julia Cameron wrote a popular book called “The Artist Way.” The book focuses on helping people be more creative. She recommends “Morning Pages:” first thing every morning writing three full pages in a journal. My suggestion is slightly different as most people struggle to dedicate that time:

    • Block the first 5 – 10 minutes of your day to journal

    • Turn off your email and handwrite in a journal whatever is on your mind

    • Topics could include reflecting on the previous day, planning ahead, present challenges, career aspirations, hopes, fears, etc.

    • One person I coach even writes a summarizing word at the top to track themes 

      Journaling is one of the most powerful tools you can use as a leader. Five minutes a day will leave you grounded, present and having better clarity.

  6. Take your vacation time: Stepping away to get a break from day-to-date work helps you be more resilient. When you come back, you have more clarity and often new insight and perspective.

  7. Watch sunrises and sunsets: Have you ever noticed what happens when you or others watch the sunrise or the sunset? Most get very quiet. They stand still and take in the moment. This quieting of your mind allows room for reflection. Just like vacation time, it can often lead to new insight and perspective.

What can you to ensure you have enough space between logs for oxygen to flow and sustain a strong fire?

Reflection, IntentionKaren Eber