Leading under pressure

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In the latest blog of our Transition to Leadership series, TPC Leadership’s Founder Charles Brook, is discussing leading under pressure for emerging leaders and the qualities required to keep you in the game.

Leading under pressure

The word pressure is thrown around a lot in leadership circles. But pressure is a broad term when discussing how it might be navigated. Growing the capacity to lead under pressure is essential if an emerging leader is to become effective. But an understanding of what kind of pressure you are facing is equally important if you do not plan on burning out – and to ensure you avoid making rash decisions in the name of rising to the occasion. 

Each type of pressure is its own leadership challenge

“We’ve been trained to think of pressure as the enemy, the unfair burden that holds us down…Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of a great opportunity.” – Michael Johnson, Slaying the Dragon

The two main kinds of stress caused by a single event or stimulus (stressors) are eustress and distress

Eustress is a healthy response to a stressor. It inspires us to engage at a deeper level, dive into the moment and increase our performance. When stimulated in this way we are able to respond and adapt effectively, often with a sense of fulfilment swiftly following. This is the kind of stress we cannot afford to avoid if we want to grow.

Distress is an unhealthy (but often inevitable) response to a stressor. We believe the challenges to be greater than our resources – either because they feel too large or too numerous. So we cope instead. We might seize up, over analyzing the situation. Or blame others, to try and shift responsibility somewhere else. Or we could take control – leaping into action as the hero we think everybody clearly wants us to be.

With coaching and by asking ourselves difficult questions, we can slowly shift the thoughts that underlie our distressed behaviour. This is a necessary but gradual process. In the meantime, how do we keep eustress at an optimum, while keeping distress (and subsequently destructive actions) at bay?

People management under pressure

“Intensity clarifies. It creates not only momentum, but also the pressure you need to feel either friction, or fulfillment.” – Marcus Buckingham

In the Harvard Business Review article, How to Bounce Back from Adversity, Joshua Margolis and Paul Stoltz say we need to be quick to move from analysing the causes of a challenging or adverse event, to making a plan of action that focuses on moving forward. Resilient people are able to move their thinking from orbiting the problem to actioning a response. 

On the flipside, Ron Heifetz warns in Adaptive Leadership, that in times of stress, a false pressure can result in hasty decisions. “You may have been there before. You know how to rise to the occasion. Even if you do not have the foggiest idea of what to do, you have a strong incentive to give in to others’ demands that you: ‘Do something!’”

Ultimately, there is not a single method that will always produce the ‘right’ response to pressure. Probably, those who usually step back and think could benefit from actioning faster and vice-versa. The key though, is that you don’t perceive yourself as the sole saviour of the situation. You can retreat into your own thoughts because you are terrified what those around you expect from you. Or you can act rashly, without asking for input, in an attempt to seem like you have everything under control. 

The real trick is to bend with the situation, to engage with it actively while creating enough space to decouple ourselves from our immediate response. And then to face the challenge without hiding our limitations and our need for the perspectives of others.

Leadership qualities to keep you in the game

We’re often told that the key to learning is to get out of our comfort zones, but… Take us very far out of our comfort zones, and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience. – Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall, HBR, The Feedback Fallacy

It can be exhilarating to live on borrowed energy, but everything has a cost. Some kinds of distress can be sustained for long periods and, if left unchecked, can become chronic. 

We can throw ourselves into the most difficult situations because of our drive to grow and become. But we need to stay aware of when the effect takes a downward turn. The Yerkes-Dodson Law identifies a point where eustress generated by stimulation that increases performance – maximises and begins grinding down into distress and reduced performance. A desire to stay on top of things, and perhaps to be the next big emerging leader, can cause us to outstay our welcome in the stress zone. It’s in those situations that we need to ask for help, to let go of pride and the urge to save face and to seriously engage with the why behind our actions. You may find our exploration of the link between happiness and purpose helpful.

Often, the real problem is not the situation, it’s the demand we place on ourselves to be in control of it.  But we don’t have to solve anything alone. The best ideas can come from anywhere. When we trust, we share out a load that was never meant for us alone.

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