Leading Under Pressure

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We all face high-pressure situations at different times for different reasons. We could be experiencing an economic shift, the pressure to meet performance targets, looming deadlines, situations that are heavily weighted, or valuable relationships that are strained, just to name a few.

Pressure often comes from external sources or expectations, and how we choose to respond or react determines our level of stress, which is an inward response. The level of stress is determined by our thoughts. If that's true, then we have complete control over stress, because it's not something that happens to us but something that happens in us. Self-management is key to keeping the pressure in check.

How a leader deals with pressure will tell you much about who they are as a person. Pressure tends to reveal our character, priorities, values and readiness. It tests a leader’s courage to follow through with doing what is right. How leaders deal with pressure is often the difference between catapulting a team towards success or contributing to its ruin. People do what people see, so it becomes particularly important for leaders to be a good example for others to follow.

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The approach a leader takes during times of pressure can also be the difference between healthy tension and unhealthy stress. Pressure and tension are primary drivers for evolving human behaviour. Pressure isn’t always negative; this is a matter of perspective. Pressure can give us motivation to challenge our thinking and our way of doing, and it can give us the motivation to keep going and to overcome. Tension represents the pull between where we are today and where we want to be. We want to feel like it’s possible, but not easy.

When the pressure is on, this is a time for leaders to be tuned in more than usual with their team.  Not to micromanage, but rather to support the mindset and environmental conditions for success.  People want to know they matter, and that they have value, particularly when the stakes are high. When the pressure is on, if people are feeling desperate, this is when temptation arises to manipulate practices, bend the rules or make unethical choices. Maintaining integrity with the values of an organization and ethical standards becomes paramount — including the leader! We have seen too often in the media the consequences of leaders and employees who mishandle these types of situations.

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Here are some thoughts I explore with leaders I coach about leading under pressure:

  1. Calm is contagious. People do what they see, and this can be amplified when the pressure is on. When we are in a state of calm we can gain clarity of thought, and greater confidence in our actions.
  2. Be purpose driven. Instead of only looking at the immediate pressure-filled situation, shift your attention to the higher purpose or bigger picture. This shift in perspective will help fuel the energy needed to move through the pressure, maintaining the tension between here and there.
  3. Focus on participation rather than results. When it comes to results, so much is outside of our control so it helps to focus on what is within our control such as attitude, best practices, wellness and communication.
  4. Manage expectations. Be clear with communication, including identifying what you know and don’t know. Minimize fears by discussing what might happen if failure is inevitable. Explore next steps with emphasis on learning from the experience.
  5. Placing emphasis on what matters most, and supporting the decisions to follow through on priorities creates clarity. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
  6. Remove barriers. Pay attention to internal constructs that may be hindering progress such as outdated policies, procedures or processes. Examine what tasks or low-value activities might be distracting or diluting focus such as too many meetings.
  7. Infuse belief. Our lives are motivated by our will to find meaning, and people will rise to the level of expectations given to them. When a leader expresses belief in another’s potential and connects them to what’s possible, hope blooms into greater performance.

Leadership is inherently challenging and comes with a certain amount of pressure built in. Those who are called to leadership are often the ones who drive and pressure themselves. What differentiates effective and ineffective leadership is one’s ability to cope with pressure, attitude towards pressure, and how one approaches high-pressure situations.  Anyone can lead when times are easy, but when the pressure is on, that’s when better leadership is revealed.