Grace Under Pressure
“When under pressure, we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to our level of training,” says the Greek poet and soldier Archilochus. Pithy and pertinent advice 2,600 years ago and today!
You don’t become a leader by drilling business cases in the tiered classroom. You learn the way officers do: day after day training leadership, decision making, and communication, and doing so under increasingly complex and volatile conditions. You face real risk while being exhausted, hungry, sleep deprived, spent. Now, will your training kick in? Will you still put the mission first, team second, and then yourself?
In time you come to embody leadership. It becomes part of the way you move, think, and act. Like a former British officer who now works for Amazon: after a recent meeting in Frankfurt, she made sure each team members had a taxi before getting one herself. She’s just wired that way.
There is the regular X-Factor, the joy of tapping into each team member’s distinct talents and qualities. And then there is the 5X Factor, where you can be 500% more productive than steady-state performers, yet most people only access flow 10 percent of their time. Going for 5X is countercultural and it involves risk, but the upside is enormous.
In flow, people are stretched and enjoy struggle (1). They step forward, take on responsibility, because it is difficult and worthwhile. They get intrigued and figure things out. They feel more skillful, strong, creative, happy.
5,000 EXECUTIVES / PEAK PERFORMANCE WITH A TEAM (2)
SUPER PRODUCTIVE BUT SELDOM DONE
IMAGINE THE IMPACT OF JUST A
The rules are simple. Start with a gulp-factor goal. One that matters to the team, one where you have some skin in the game, one that demands each team member to push themselves a little, and do so every day. To work just at the edge of their capabilities (3)
Then make space for 90 min. of flow every day (or could be a half day every week). Time for the team to dive into the intractable problems, do analysis, detect patterns, work through disagreement, and sense solutions. That means: no text, no mail, no meetings, no interruptions! Everyone on airplane mode! Really!!! (every interruption costs the response time plus 15 min. before you are back in flow).
As the leader your job is to create such spaces through good planning, pitching it to the powers that be, and being fierce about follow through. Feels risky? Good, risk is a great flow trigger.
Every day is filled with disturbances. We get triggered, pulled off center, become “easy to push.” On top of that, many amplify the irritation and anxiety by talking and texting about it. Leaders can’t afford to indulge in negative emotions for more than a few seconds. It’s counterproductive.
Instead, think like a surgeon under duress. Practice techniques that instantly calm our nervous system (e.g., deep breaths), so you can stay uplifted and the team unruffled. Then you can calmly assess the situation, keep your perspective, and take calculated risks.
Martials arts puts people under attack to train counter-intuitive responses. Leadership Embodiment (LE) has adapted these principles to the workplace, enabling you to do small practices throughout the day. These so-called “lizard pushups” can help you shift from a reactive to a resourceful presence. They are so easy to do, that you can practice while waiting at a red light, standing in line for coffee, before stating your point of view in meetings or hitting send. The result? In just 100 days you will get triggered less often and show more grace under pressure.
(1) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Claremont Graduate University's Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (2) McKinsey Quarterly: Increasing the Meaning Quotient of Work. (3) Steven Kotler, Author of The Rise of Superman; speaking here on Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (13 min.) and The Four Cycles of Flow (4 min.)