The Air Is Thin Up Here—Is Your Company Getting Enough Oxygen?

As a leader, every move you make will either breathe more life into your company—or slowly kill it. The good news? The choice is yours to make.

“When you get up to a certain elevation on Mount Everest, the air changes.”

Those words from Andy Politz, who participated in numerous search-and-rescue missions on Everest, make a good point about life and business. At that elevation, you’ve got to breathe very intentionally. Four breaths and another step. Four breaths. Step. Four breaths. Step. In scientific terms, we must inhale a greater volume of air at altitude than at sea level to take in in the same amount of oxygen.

These days, the “air” around us has been dangerously thin at many altitudes, as we come out of a global pandemic that has so far claimed nearly five million lives, and as civil unrest, racism, and political and economic uncertainty in the United States continue to challenge us all and threaten the foundations on which this country was built.

In these harrowing times—with division, blame and negativity swirling around us—four breaths are definitely required.

Some teams and organizations continue to experience extreme hardship, uncertainty and loss. Others are seizing opportunities to connect, grow and experience success beyond what they thought was possible. No matter which altitude you’re experiencing, your mindset, and how you breathe, matter.

“…by uplifting others through authentic, values-based leadership, they [leaders] end up lifting up both themselves and their organizations. Positive energizers demonstrate and cultivate virtuous actions, including forgiveness, compassion, humility, kindness, trust, integrity, honesty, generosity, gratitude, and recognition in the organization. As a result, everyone flourishes. (“The Best Leaders Have a Contagious Positive Energy,” Harvard Business Review, April 18, 2022)

Which air do we choose to breathe?

At this point, the answer should be clear and immediate: exhaling the negativity, blame and divisive rhetoric and inhaling the air that fuels our minds and expands our abilities to act. In short, we need good oxygen for our journey, while, as leaders, also helping to breathe oxygen into others, to make a difference in our world.

With enough oxygen, the brain signals where to send blood to oxygen-starved muscles and tissues, coordinating thought, emotion, behavior, movement and sensation, including functions like problem-solving, planning and short-term memory, among others. But when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen, then cerebral hypoxia (or starvation) sets in, leading to poor judgment, uncoordinated movement and a decline in cognitive abilities.

Higher-quality air will enhance our functionality. Lower-quality air will starve and poison our functionality.

80% of our thoughts are negative

The average person has 12,000-60,000 thoughts per day, but 80% are identified as negative thoughts, and 95% are repetitive thoughts (source: National Academy of Science). The most common patterns of negative thoughts are regrets of the past, fear of the future, unhealthy comparisons with others and blame. We spend much of our days doing mental gymnastics around false narratives of a future that hasn’t happened yet.

Following these mental pathways makes it harder to “breathe.” Without healthy communications within the teams and organizations, the void is often filled by fear, gossip, finger-pointing and false information. Toxic air spreads.

The healthiest teams are the ones that don’t let too much time pass without intentionally filling the air and developing mindsets around clarity, inclusivity, agility, grit, rest, ownership and ultimately hope. Our brains and the oxygen we take in (thoughts, stories, focus and mindset) impact how we see, experience and perform in the world.

Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

For years, researchers have been studying and sharing the power of our minds and thoughts. Psychologists have shown us the power (and positive impact) of having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. A growth mindset is knowing that every person can grow as a result of learning, effort and persistence. With a fixed mindset, everything is already carved in stone; people and situations are limited, finite.

One mindset gives oxygen, the other tends to take oxygen out of the room.

The renowned psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman conducted research on how positive psychotherapy helped people overcome depression, “not only by reducing its negative symptoms but also by directly and primarily building positive emotions, character strengths and meaning.”

The UC Davis Medical Center lists 12 benefits of a grateful mindset, ranging from reduced stress and a reduction in inflammation in patients with congenital heart disease to an improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain. People who are grateful are found to generally be happier and have more social connections and fewer bouts of depression. People with a more negative mindset generally experience more toxic and volatile challenges.

Navigating with grace and effectiveness

It’s not just a matter of “thinking positively” but a connection between the mindset, vision and action that follow. All of this is founded in research but comes alive for us when we share our own experiences, stories and actions.

In short, where you look is where you go. What we give our minds and hearts to is where our bodies follow.

If what gets your attention is negativity, gossip, blame and division, then that is where you’ll go. And if that is where you go, then it is far too easy to pull oxygen from others along the way. If what captures your mind and heart is connection, vision, purpose and solutions, then that is where you’ll go.

Six leadership mindsets

In a world that is often noisy, negative, gossipy and critical, our mindset is vital. The individuals and teams that harness mindsets and action that breathe life into themselves and those on the journey with them will navigate the road with more grace and effectiveness than those who don’t. And if we can shift our eyes and our hearts and practice inhaling this oxygen into ourselves and then providing energy to our teammates, progress will be made.

I believe these six key leadership mindsets are needed to breathe life into any team:

  1. The best leaders improve everyone’s sight lines.

2. Every time the circle widens, the possibilities expand.

3. Letting go of old ways makes it possible to breathe deeply.

4. Toughness is breathing through the pain.

5. To go further, stop and take a deep breath.

6. Accountability gives energy and life to others.

Courageously committing to breathing the oxygen of these mindsets and actions will change the culture and environment of your relationships and teams, within your organization and externally.

Healthy thinking: as essential to great leadership as the air we breathe.

Leading yourself and a team of people has never been more complicated than it is today.

Every move leaders make is either breathing life into their organization or slowly killing it. Just as every human being on the planet needs good air to breathe, every organization needs leadership that breathes life into its people to sustain the energy required to complete its mission.

Nine out of every 10 employees say they would take a pay cut to work for a more meaningful culture.

Are you breathing enough oxygen into your organization to give it meaning?


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