5 Steps to Leading Effectively Under Pressure

Finding our authentic leadership style takes time and is a challenge in itself, let alone maintaining and upholding it when we are under pressure. When we feel in control, it is relatively easy to stay calm, to collaborate effectively and to demonstrate “ideal” behaviours. How we choose to show up when the heat is on is when the rubber hits the road. It is a skill that needs to be developed, practiced, tested, adjusted and practiced again. Taking authentic leadership from good to great, means staying true to yourself and being the best version of yourself in every situation. So the question is: How can we get better at leading under pressure?

When we are exposed to stress, our body chemistry changes and we tend to fall back into default behaviours that are less noble, yet have helped the human species to survive: our voice may rise, we tend to make snap judgements, we easily fall into fight or flight mode. In the work environment, this may show up as having less patience with others, making rash decisions, losing sight of the bigger picture or communicating with less empathy, so relationships suffer. No matter how many leadership courses we might have attended, whatever we learned can quickly be dismissed when we need to perform in the heat of the moment.

In order to consistently demonstrate effective leadership behaviours, we need to practise them. Not only in the classroom or during friendly experiential workshops but also in high-pressure scenarios where actions count and impact matters. Ideally, the scenario combines tough leadership challenges with ambiguous tasks and complex stakeholder management in an unknown environment. Because this is what leadership in the real world feels like.

Let me share an example about what we do at GAIA Insights to help leaders become the best version of themselves through long-term development journeys, typically lasting 12 to 18 months. During our journeys, many of the components are virtual, yet there are a few live modules that bring it all together and solidify participants’ key learnings. The following video clip shows what we like to expose participants to, in order to practice what they learned and effectively perform under pressure.

As shown in the video, during an intense, outdoor day participants need to form teams, choose a team leader, familiarize themselves with equipment, and make a plan in a very short time period with limited information. Their task is to arrive at specific GPS coordinates at specific times, to complete a series of seemingly easy challenges, until they reach the final stop at the end of the day, where they need to tackle a final challenge that can only be resolved if teams effectively collaborate across silos.

It all seems rather simple when you put it this way. However, when participants face themselves in the mirror of reality, when they realize that their interpretation of the given instructions was ambiguous and that their well-planned strategy is not working, their leadership behaviour derails. What happens on a day like this is far from simple. In the end every team experiences it differently They choose a different approach, set out in different ways to achieve their goals, react differently to the challenges presented and then reflect on the day in their own unique way. Just like real life.

What we observe, when we go through this with our participants is what easily happens even to the finest leaders when they are under pressure:

  • When time is scarce, people tend to jump into action instead of pausing and thinking first.
  • Even if groups commit to align and collaborate with other teams in the beginning, this commitment fades away as teams zoom in on their own objectives and forget about common goals throughout the day.
  • Often, people develop a kind of tunnel vision. They are so consumed by their drive to achieve that they stop taking in information that is available around them or advice offered by other people, even people close to them, like their own team members.
  • Under pressure, individuals are less self-conscious and empathetic; they forget that they are human beings interacting with other human beings, who are going through their own emotions, everyone at their own pace.

If these are the pitfalls to watch out for, the following steps are 5 key learnings distilled by our program participants, on how to lead better under pressure:

1.) Deal With Yourself First – to begin with, you need to have a sense of what is going on with you. Just take a breath and sit with your emotions, acknowledge them, accept them. Being kind to ourselves is a good way to reconnect, both with ourselves and with others. We are all entitled to feel, feel intensely and feel differently. This moment of self-consciousness is likely going to stop the chain reaction that drives emotions into negative or unhelpful behaviours.

2.) Slow Down To Accelerate – while it is counter-intuitive to pause when time is scarce, it is extremely resourceful to stop and think things through before rushing into action. Instead of wasting energy on knee-jerk reactions that might require time and effort to be reversed if unsuccessful, taking the time to slow down first often helps to accelerate and be much more efficient in the end.

3.) Think Bigger Picture – try to maintain an overview when you are under pressure, understand the context and your position in it. What is it that you are dealing with? What are the forces affecting the ecosystem you are operating in? What do you want to achieve and how? Who are the other players and what are their agendas? What risks need mitigation.

4.) Be Compassionate – as a leader you are always “on stage”. People look at you. Consciously or unconsciously, you influence others through your actions as well as non-actions. Pay respect to your followers by checking in with our team. Ask for feedback, align the team with your strategy, keep an open dialogue. What are your team’s strengths and weaknesses? How is everybody feeling? How can people support each other? What do they need from you to perform?

5.) Stay Agile, Learn and Adapt – watch out for filters, shields or biases coming up that could block your vision or cloud your judgment. Stay in open mode, keep your eyes open and truly see, listen to others and hear what you may not want to hear. Regularly check, how are we doing against our plan and objectives? What is working and what is not? How can we learn and adapt? If your plan is not working, do not be afraid to change it!

These may seem simple reminders, but let’s do a reality check: Think of the last time you and your team were under pressure. Now use this checklist to reflect on how you behaved and performed. Then take a moment to focus on yourself as a leader – what can you learn from that experience? How can you prepare yourself and your team to do better next time when you are under pressure?
Last but not least, remember that challenges and pressure also allow the best of our human nature to rise to the occasion. It is wonderfully inspiring to see true leadership when we need it most: to experience vision, compassion, courage and purpose. And interestingly enough, these leadership highlights have a much deeper and longer lasting impact in our life journeys than the natural confusion and chaos we experience from time to time along the way.
If you would like to see what our participants say about how our journeys have helped them become more authentic leaders, follow this link. Alumni survey results If you want to learn more about our leadership journeys, click here.

Authored by Valeria Torino, Program Mentor, and Martina Mangelsdorf, Program Director at GAIA Insights