Leading in Tough Times 2 – You Under Pressure


Last week, with a first RFL in a series on “leadership in times of challenge,” I invited you to consider the possibility that someone’s nutty behavior may be less a product of their individual psychological makeup than the fact that there are unusual pressures in the system.  I gave the example of a teen acting out, or someone blowing up at a meeting.  It’s easy to blame them, but it may be much more fruitful to ask: What’s going on here (or in other circles they’re in) that would cause them to flip out?  What was implied is that systemic pressure will cause a weak link to break; pressure seeks escape.*

Today I’d suggest more broadly: Everyone – or nearly everyone – consciously or otherwise reacts to pressures and stresses on the system as a whole.  And it’s important to know how YOU react.  If a company is in trouble, for instance, fear will generate predictable outlets:  e.g., authorities will be blamed; factions will fight over perceived scarcities (of money, management’s attention, etc.); personality differences that are usually tolerated will become hot spots.  The well-meaning people fueling these distractions will often and unwittingly be taking focus away from the real work that’s threatening the company.

The first work of leadership is to know how I – me, the one I can best control – react to pressure.  Two places deserve your attention.  First, are you playing the distraction games mentioned above – rumor-mongering, finger-pointing, side-taking, etc.?  If so, STOP!  Second, it helps to understand how you react under pressure.  Most of us tend to exaggerate our behaviors, leaning upon our perceived strengths, our comfort zones.  For instance, I tend to retreat into the safety of big-picture thoughts, big ideas and ideals.  But the group may need focus on some hard details and daily execution.  Others tend to be take-control folks, and under pressure may take the situation by the throat (remember General Haig when President Reagan was shot, announcing he was in control?).  Some retreat.  Some charge.  Some get Mr. Spock like logical.  Others get very emotional – angry or empathetic to the point of paralysis.

Do you know what you do under pressure?  As I have often written, leaders ask not “What’s comfortable for me, or what do I want?” but must always ask, “What does the group need?”  Don’t assume they’re the same.

Economic and other group pressures will continue to accompany those who lead, it’s important to understand how you react to them if you are to

Lead with your best self.


* Ronald Heifetz is a phenomenal teacher when it comes to understanding group pressure and leadership response.  A Harvard-trained psychiatrist, Heifetz started the leadership programs at the JFK School of Government at Harvard where he continues to teach leadership.  You can find his analysis in his book Leading on the Edge, co-authored by Marty Linsky, former chief of staff to Governor William Weld of Massachusetts.