What makes some leaders capable of handling themselves under pressure?
What is the secret?
Many books portray leaders like this as being somehow immune to extreme emotions. They seem to just move through their day without letting anything bother them or knock them off their beam.
The trouble is that we are often looking at these types of leaders through an historical lens. For example, George Washington was often depicted as a stoic, courageous General who experienced no fear. It was said that bullets seemed to be afraid to strike him on the battlefield because he was so noble. The truth is that he experienced frustration, fear and embarrassment as much as the other guy. He was just better than most at managing his emotions in front of his troops. (George Washington’s reasons for fighting in the American Revolution basically came out of his anger of being rejected by the British military elite. For more information, check out this biography by Joseph Ellis.)
(“My only fear is that people will tell apocryphal stories about my teeth.”)
People also base leadership and courage on a myth built up from literature, television or film:
(“My character eats fear for breakfast.”)
However, if you want to understand how to handle emotional stress better and be perceived as a cool and collected leader, you are going to have to get in tune with your emotions and how they are connected to your thoughts and your body.
As Danny Musico says about fear and boxing, “Guys who chicken out, who panic, are in most cases guys who are trying to hide from their feelings. Tough guys feel that fear; they embrace it. Experience what’s happening inside you, accept it, and keep going.”
The key is to experience the feelings, even if they are uncomfortable. The problem is usually not so much the feelings themselves, but the reactions that we have to them. When we feel fear, we begin to create stories about not only where that fear comes from, but all the ways that the fear will never leave.
Imagine if you were standing on a beach for the first time and that you had no notion of the ocean or tides. When it first starts to wash over your feet, you can imagine feeling a kind of panic. If you have ever seen a toddler react to a wave rolling up to him/her, you can have a sense of the panic that can set in. The sensations are new, the information is strange (there wasn’t water and now there is) and the pattern is not entirely clear (to the toddler).
The same can be said for emotions. When you feel a wave of emotion come over you (especially a negative one), do you let that emotion wash over you or do you react like the toddler?
The truth for many people is that they don’t often know that they are being flooded with an emotion. They feel the stress of it, but they try to suppress it because that is what we think that real adults are supposed to do. “Real adults” don’t let emotions affect them because they don’t have emotions:
(Except for rage. “Adults” seem to have a lot of that these days.)
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness in business and the term has become one of those buzzwords that seems to suck all meaning out of it. (While maybe it is helpful to tell someone to “give mindful feedback,” it still seems to annoying.)
That being said, the goal of mindfulness is to become more aware of how feelings affect our bodies and our thinking. It is helpful to better understand what you are feeling and how that feeling impacts you because then you have a chance to change. Here are a few things you can practice to help you stay calm and manage your emotions during difficult times.
- Identify the feeling as you have it. This might be easier for some than for others. Many people have difficulty naming a variety of feelings. (If you need a list to pull from, here is one.) The idea is to be able to pinpoint a feeling and identify it, rather than search for the impetus outside yourself. As they say “feeling is healing.” (It’s true because it rhymes)
- Locate the feeling in your body. When we have feelings, we usually experience them in our body. The more intense the feeling, the more intense the physical reaction. If you feel it in your gut, for example, focus your attention to that area and just keep it there without judging it. Notice how it changes and shifts. You will probably begin to notice that the feeling eventually recedes (like the wave at the beach) and with that comes the realization that it isn’t permanent.
- No judgment. The worst thing we can do with feelings is to critique them as “good” or “bad.” When we do that we are trying to control them rather than let them wash over us. Using judgment in this way is like trying to swim by thinking that the water is the problem. We just end of thrashing away at it while we slowly sink. Better to give ourselves up to it and just float.
- Pay attention to the stress behind thoughts. Feelings often are connected to thoughts, which will feed the feelings. For example, when I try something new and fail I might think “I am terrible at this” or “I suck” which are thoughts that compound the feeling of disappointment I get when I can’t get something right. If I disregard that thought as being unproductive, and focus instead on the process of learning, I will be able to understand the feeling as being temporary. If your thoughts are suggesting that you are the reason for the feeling, they aren’t very trustworthy thoughts.
If you practice these elements, you will find that times of external stress or emotional upheavals won’t be as difficult to manage. While you won’t be impervious to fear or other negative emotions, the temptation to let them sweep you away or the desire to suppress them (and thus make them more acute) will be lessened. It gets easier the more you practice.
Eventually you will be perceived as a leader who is able to keep calm when all others are losing their heads.