Friday, April 8, 2011

Don’t Let Them See You Sweat

Executive Summary:
We are naturally drawn to leaders who display an ability to address matters of great concern with little emotion or stress.  Harness the ability to act calmly and confidently in a crisis and your teams, your peers, and your leaders will all come to recognize your cool under fire and rely upon you as a crucial leader.

The Rest of the Story:
A leadership quality that I observed in one of my mentors a long time ago, and have endeavored to replicate since, is an unflappable calm when the pressure gets turned up.  It struck me in particular because not only were those whom he led receptive and ready to follow his lead, but his peers also responded quickly to his suggestions and lead.

By contrast, I once worked with a leader who prided himself on his nickname, “Griz.”  When things went wrong around this guy, people wanted to be everywhere else.  I never understood why that was something to take pride in.

When I look at a list of those leaders from whom I most study and learn (I don’t mean study in books, I mean co-workers and mentors), they too demonstrate a “cool under fire” that is a significant success factor.  Take a moment and reflect on your own experiences and those whom you believe display strong leadership.  Do most of your leadership examples also demonstrate the same trait?

In most social or group situations, people naturally accept and even look for an individual that fills a leadership role.  The next time you go to lunch or dinner with a group of 8 or more people, see if you don’t observe the phenomenon.  Eventually, someone will step up and help the server get appetizers, wine, and other group decisions made.

Many times the lead role is self-evident.  In the lunch example it might be the one who invited everyone to the gathering who now is socially responsible for everyone’s good time.  Sometimes, it happens when a personality asserts itself and assumes the role, either intentionally or by relative natural ability.

Take a look at a true crisis situation.  The individual who displays the greatest confidence in a group of strangers will be one whose lead the others will follow.  Notice, I say “confidence,” not “credential.”

Here is an example.  A friend of mine once came upon an ugly automobile accident, which had just occurred on the road ahead.  People rushed over to help and some were already on their cell phones with emergency services.

One person in particular was busy shouting orders and running around a bit frantic exclaiming that she was trained in emergency first aid.  No one seemed to be doing as she asked, or at least they were only doing a few obvious things that they too knew needed to be done.  My friend, who is a nurse and has spent some considerable time in the ER, stepped in calmly and spoke with the other woman who was shouting orders.

“Now, Honey, you must stop shouting,” she said calmly.  “Let’s not make things any worse.”  She then pointed to one of the injured victims and suggested, in the same calm manner, that the emergency-first-aid-trained woman take care of that person’s needs.  She then directed her husband to another injured person and told him what to do, while she went over to take care of a third.

She told one of the bystanders with an open phone link to the emergency line what information to relay and calmly directed others in how to help.  A few had already figured out to move up the road in both directions and signal oncoming traffic of the hazard.

Now, what is important to understand is that my friend never declared that she was a nurse.  Her husband is a law-enforcement professional, and could have just as easily taken charge of the situation, but because she did so effectively, he decided to follow her lead. 

In short, the first person that recognized that someone needed to take control and tried to do so was usurped by my friend and her calm, confident demeanor.  Leadership was not given because of a declaration, it was accepted because of behavior.

In a crisis, it is natural for us to be drawn toward a leader who is calm, rational, and pointed toward showing us a solution.  In the story, my friend’s experience and knowledge provided her with the confidence to assume leadership, but her display of calm allowed others to accept her leadership and follow orders without apprehension or doubt.

Now, in the workplace, we don’t deal with medical emergencies very often, we hope.  The phenomenon is the same, though, for sudden, “I need your team to do this right now,” problems or, “the production line is down,” challenges.  If you can respond to these issues with calm, but directed confidence, those with whom you are working will readily follow your lead.

What’s more, if you demonstrate a pattern of cool under fire, your teams, your peers, and your leaders will recognize it and their confidence in you will increase.  You will find that you will become a natural first choice person to seek when challenges arise.

Staying cool under fire does not mean that you need to be a cold, calculating robot.  You are still allowed and encouraged to show passion for your initiatives, beliefs, and values.  It’s OK to be angry or disappointed, but you can’t use those emotions to solve the problem.  You can, and should display a sense of urgency, but do so with action and quick direction, not frantic or overly emotional behavior.

I’ve worked for years to try and harness this behavior myself.  I’ve had some success in the workplace, less at home.  (I’m afraid my emotional investment in my family still challenges my skill at keeping cool in every situation.)  In any case, here are some thoughts, which I’ve collected to help you try to remain cool.
  • Breath – creating a habit of responding to pressure by deliberately breathing makes a huge difference for me.  It draws the mind’s focus away from the emotions created and onto a simple task.  I’ve been told the extra oxygen in the system has a calming affect as well.  You don’t need to make it an obvious yoga-ish thing, just breath.
  • Immediately focus on solving the problem, not on the problem.  If you can create the habit of accepting the situation and moving forward, you will suddenly find it much easier to be rational instead of emotional.  If you find yourself dwelling on the how, why, or who of the problem, stop.  These have already occurred, they can’t be changed.  Save it for after the problem is solved, and solve the problem.
  • Separate yourself from the problem.  Think of the situation as a problem, not your problem.
  • Actively control your voice and manner.  This is easier to do if you already have the breathing part figured out.
  • If you don’t immediately know what to do, break down the problem into pieces and begin assigning people with appropriate skills or behaviors to those parts.  Think simple: containment, safety, short-term remedies, and long-term resolution.  Take suggestions.  Sometimes, others know what to do; they just need you to help them focus on the solution instead of the problem
  • Don’t fight with another over who is leading.  If it is your responsibility, and you are calm, then calmly say so and ask for the other’s help.  If it’s not clearly anyone’s responsibility and another has stepped up, calmly assert your suggestions and be helpful.  

It takes practice to exercise the above ideas, and very few people can do it perfectly all the time.  I confess that I don’t. 

I’ve collected the above practices over a number of years, and they have helped me.  If you would look for other sources, I collected some of the practices above from basic anger management and stress management advice.  You might research those topics.  I understand that regular, daily meditation – just simple mind focus practices, not metaphysical transcendence – can have significant long-term benefits on keeping calm under pressure.

People are naturally drawn toward leaders who display calm confidence under pressure.  We also naturally avoid those who are emotional or irrational under pressure.  Enhance your leadership skills by developing a cool-under-fire persona.  Your teams, your peers, and your leaders will notice and you will gain their confidence.  Leadership prevails in those who don’t seem to sweat even matters of great concern.

Stay wise, friends.


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