Everybody's got plans… until they get hit
- Mike Tyson
Now most people may ask, why is he putting in a quote like this when talking about leadership?
Well, in the case of leadership under pressure and in environments that constantly change, the answer is that you get hit. A lot.
If we want to talk about effective leadership under pressure, there are several questions we should ask.
Firstly, what do we mean when we say effective leadership?
Is it being able to drag your team over the finish line, no matter what? Or, creating a team that can function fully and to a high level without your input, effectively making yourself redundant? Or is it just simply keeping your team happy?
These are all questions that we should ask ourselves as a team, not just as leaders.
Having logged thousands of miles during my sailing career, there are multiple occasions where my leadership was put under pressure from something going wrong or from the outside environment.
One such example was during my time as a senior training skipper with the Clipper Round the World Race. On one particular occasion, I had just asked the crew to pull our spinnaker down (a large sail at the front) when I felt the steering break, meaning we had no control of the direction of the boat.
Calmly, I asked the crew to first bring the sail down before we could address the steering issue; but as we started the first part of the process, our mainsail broke. The priority had now changed to getting the spinnaker down, followed by the bringing the mainsail under control, then address the steering issue.
All of this was happening, not in the wide open spaces of the Atlantic Ocean (with lots of time to sort the issues) but in the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel and with a building swell, winds of 60mph and, inevitably, at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Now let me come back to the original quote.
Just like a surgeon may have planned out a complex operation, I had planned that day’s sail and training to go a little more smoothly. But as we know, ‘the best laid plans’ and all that.
The ability of leaders in the medical or maritime field is their capacity to stay calm during crisis. This calmness usually then permeates through to the team and allows them to do the job they need to do.
Simply yelling “fix the halyard,” or worse, panicking, will have the crew running around bumping into each other. By directing the team to perform tasks that mitigate the crisis while the main problem is addressed in due time is key to avoiding permanent fundamental failure.
Pressure and fatigue, such as in the example above or in a theatre during a long and complex operation, can have extreme effects on our ability as a leader. It can slow our decision making down, or even cloud our judgement.
One of the problems I have encountered was not that everything was slow, but that everything sped up.
My heart rate would elevate, my brain would start whizzing, and making decisions would become harder.
A trick I found useful was to take a few deep breaths to slow everything down, and to give myself that split second to take everything in. This allows you to fully assess the situation and, if you don’t have immediate answers, to get help from your team.
As a leader, we need to remember that while we don’t always have the answers, we have a highly skilled team around us. The foundations for leading under pressure are set before an issue occurs: the creation of a culture where everyone communicates clearly, where everyone can speak up, ideas can be shared and where everyone has had training to be able to do their job.
As a leader, we don’t necessarily need to have the answers straight away, but what we do need is the ability to calm things down so everyone can do their job.