Staying calm under pressure tells a lot about a leader

Some stress is good, but leaders should be able to handle curveballs to stay calm and in control.
Some stress is good, but leaders should be able to handle curveballs to stay calm and in control.
(Susan Spano / Los Angeles Times)

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

Recently, a colleague reminded me of a fundamental lesson when selecting and evaluating leaders. He pointed out that often it is when someone gets thrown a curveball (or challenge) in the hiring process that we see what his or her true colors are. And isn’t this the truth?

A lot has been mentioned in today’s political arena about emotional intelligence and being able to stay calm under pressure. Most of us want a leader with passion and energy to make things happen; but we also want to know that when a crisis comes along, that our leader will take decisive action in a calm and professional manner.


In fact, the training and coaching firm TalentSmart found that 90% of top performers were able to manage their emotions in times of stress to stay calm and in control.

It’s not that we can control all stress in our lives. Some amount of stress or conflict is actually healthy and keeps us energized. We just want to make sure that we (and our leaders) can handle the pressures that life throws at us. So, what can you do to better control your emotions when life throws you a curveball?

  • You need to have good self-awareness. What are your triggers that throw you off course? If you know these, you can better manage them when you see them coming at you.
  • Try reframing what is happening. Recognize that anger or heightened emotions are natural with a setback and that your emotional brain is taking control of you. Remind yourself that anger or frustration is normal so that you can recast the feelings you are having.
  • Get some exercise to divert your mind away from your feelings. You could also listen to music, try to meditate or something else to put your energy elsewhere.
  • Put the issue in context. When thinking about the event, remind yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen as a result of this”? Often you will realize what’s a big deal now won’t be one later.
  • Write down your thoughts, especially if you are worried about things.
  • Watch your nonverbals. Try to keep the frown or scowl off your face. If you look miserable, you generally will feel miserable. Practice smiling if you can.
  • You need to have a healthy sense of humor about life and not take yourself too seriously.
  • Admit to the mistakes you have made when handling a situation poorly and sincerely apologize. It is amazing how many leaders do not know how to do this.
  • Instead of constantly telling others you are overwhelmed or swamped, use more positive messaging to say that you will get through this. “I have a lot going on right now but I will get through it all; I always do.” Using more positive terms instead of the negative ones helps you to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel instead of the tunnel itself.

As noted earlier, anyone can stay calm when things are going well. The person who doesn’t lose their cool is the one who is remembered in a positive way, as the leader people want to follow or the applicant they want to hire.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations.


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