How Successful Leaders Thrive Under Pressure

It was Super Bowl XXIII and the San Francisco 49ers were down 16–13 to the Cincinnati Bengals. Pinned back on their own eight-yard line with 3:10 left on the clock, the 49ers quarterback, Joe Montana led the team down the field to score the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left in the game.

This is the best part. During the final drive, Montana turned to a teammate and says, “There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp. Isn’t that John Candy?”

The reason I like this story so much is because it points out Montana’s poise. Everyone looks at the quarterback to lead. He is typically the person that gets credited with winning or losing the game. In this case, Montana, who was losing during the final moments of the Super Bowl, had the calmness to make a nonchalant, trivial observation to a teammate—while a normal quarterback would be losing their shit and focused on winning the game. That’s probably why Joe Montana was one of the best to play the game.

When the stakes are high, successful people thrive under pressure. Pressure situations can empower you or imprison you. Surface level confident people will clam up when they’re in the spotlight. While average folks try to avoid pressure environments and slug their way through these situations, successful people welcome these moments. It’s where they operate best. It’s where they earn their paycheck.

They Make Decisions Quickly

“One of my favorite things about Elon is his ability to make enormous decisions very quickly.” -Steve Davis, Director at SpaceX

Will we make payroll? Is this rocket going to explode, putting us out of business? Any time Musk made progress, he’d receive a blow that moved him five steps back. The aforementioned questions were (and maybe still are) valid concerns for Elon Musk as Ashlee Vance laid out in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

Musk’s ongoing skirmishes with keeping his companies afloat never ruffled him. When he was approached with a question or another shit-storming problem, he never complained or dwelled on the problem. He’d simply make an actionable decisions to push through the problem.

Successful leaders do not buckle under pressure. They take the information available and act swiftly. Paralysis by analysis is not something leaders can afford. Neither is the fear of failure. Will they fail? Did they make the wrong decision? Maybe. They don’t have the luxury of time to get all the answers. Instead of being reactive, they get proactive.

Start small by making small decisions quickly. From what you are going to wear, to your breakfast meal. Every action is the result of a decision, and beginning with trivial decisions will strengthen your decision-making muscle. Through repetition, you’ll get better at making decisions, and will be trained for the harder stuff.

They are Relentless

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In football, you are taught to hustle at 100% until the whistle blows. The ones that don’t give up on a play can swing momentum in their team’s favor. These players will hustle their way to a starting role, big payday, or accolades.

The relentless keep going no matter if the odds are stacked against them. Back to Elon Musk—if something broke, was too expensive, or the law of physics prevented the construction of an item, he’d hack a way to make it function. He never took “no” for an answer.

There’s a reason why Churchill was called the “British Bulldog.” It was for his tenacity. With Adolf Hitler and the overwhelming German military force raining hell over England, Churchill refused to back down. The world was looking at him to defeat evil, and preserve the free world.

Musk never gave up. Churchill never gave up. Successful leaders never give up. When their backs are against the wall, they push back.

They are Confident

Confident leaders cool, calm, and collected.

Professional athletes are known to be confident people. They are goal-oriented people and their goal is to win. Becoming a winner in the game begins with creating a winner mentality. With the right coaching, athletes are taught to be winners early on with positive self-talk. Confident athletes believe they are going to win the game before the game starts. With the amount of training and practice they put in, they trust their skills to follow through on their mindset.

They don’t mistake self-talk with delusion. Elite athletes will accept failure, but they don’t expect failure.

Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever to play the game had an exorbitant amount of confidence. He expected to win every single game. This confidence was learned through practice, repetition, and failure. When the game was on the line, everyone (including Jordan) expected him to take the winning shot because he knew he could win the game.

Through repetition and practice, your competence in completing a task will increase. Your confidence will increase as your competence increases. Confidence can bury fear, and create poise under pressure. Your poise will bring others to ease during hectic moments.

They Know Themselves

People that thrive in high-pressure environments are imperfect. Even successful people have flaws. What separates these leaders from the pack is their ability to recognize and delegate their weaknesses. Great leaders hire great people. When the stress level is high, they can depend on the people around them to solve a problem or reach a goal.

Abraham Lincoln possessed a high level of self-awareness. Through self-teaching and experience, he learned to recognize his shortcomings. As a result, he was able to build a high-performing team around him. He was even smart enough to recruit his adversaries into his own cabinet. Though tumultuous in the early years of his presidency, Lincoln’s cabinet members learned to admire and respect him.

If you don’t know what your strengths and weaknesses are, then stop reading this post immediately and pick up StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Too many people have a false perception of their strengths/weaknesses and don’t have the self-awareness to know what they are genuinely good/bad at.

Know your strengths, weaknesses, and the environments you operate best in.

They Motivate Their People

This is where leaders truly shine. They don’t let stressful situations demoralize the team. A situation like this is an opportunity to rally the troops.

World leaders, military generals, business executives, coaches—all have influencing oration skills. Part of a leader’s job is to motivate. It is what sets great leaders apart. They are able to inspire their troops to get behind them for a final push. This stems from having a clear purpose your people can rally around.

Listen to motivational speeches. The good ones will give you goosebumps. They discuss their purpose and connect to the listener’s emotions. Creating an emotional connection with your listener is what will get them to grind it out with you. Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TED Talk.

Roy Hall from Roy Hall Motivates says, “The word pressure is very telling. When you break the word down into parts, ‘press,’ ‘u,’ and ‘re,’ you find the one necessary component to all greatness, ‘re,’ or in other words, HOW YOU RESPOND. How you respond will dictate how you perform. How you respond to adversity, challenges, and troubling situations. That’s the part that we control! When you put it together; when you get a full court PRESS, how will U, REspond. The great ones don’t allow their circumstances to dictate their success. They believe they can overcome anything!”

When shit hits the fan, leaders never take their eye off the prize, and never let a situation dictate their actions. Their inner game is on point and don’t let the situation rattle them. While the mediocre leaders will get reactive and stressed, the great leaders will get proactive.

Do you trust your skills?

Can you lead with purpose?

Can you motivate others to level up?

Are you going to give up?

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