Grace Under Pressure: A Great Leadership Opportunity

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m currently off on a holiday with my oldest son.  We escaped the frozen, snow covered Midwest for some sun and fun.  We attended the finals of a tennis tournament yesterday, played a few hours of tennis today and got a bit too much sun.  Tomorrow we are off on a mountain hiking adventure.  Great time together with my son and my brother and his family.

Unfortunately, our home away from home has internet connectivity, so while my 19 year old is napping after beating up on me on the tennis court, I couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to jot a quick post about my observations on some of the behavior under pressure that I observed from the pros at the tournament that we attended.  There are at least a few observations applicable for leaders everywhere.

I’ve always had a problem with professionals of any sort that succumb to irrational displays of anger under pressure.  This is a common trait of ineffective leaders, many teenagers and occasional tennis pros.  What happens to credibility when a leader decides to chew out a subordinate in public or, lets loose with a string of profanities for all to hear?  In my book, they shoot their credibility right in the proverbial foot. 

I was struck by the remarkably talented young tennis pro that frequently lost his cool when things went wrong, and for all practical purposes acted his shoe-size instead of his age.  Here he was, playing a game for a living, surrounded by a crowd of devoted fans.  It was clear that many of the fans were young, aspiring tennis players that from the chants and cheers, clearly look up to this person.  Unfortunately, this tennis pro proved to everyone how immature he truly is by his behavior.  He missed a remarkable opportunity to build professional credibility and influence in a good way a number of impressionable young people who will likely find his behavior slightly more acceptable now that they’ve observed him in real time.

In contrast, we had the good fortune to see a number of tremendous professionals who displayed grace under pressure in victory and in defeat. The lessons from the pros that lost were most illustrative.  Losing is painful.  It’s never the goal, and I don’t expect that anyone should take losing easily.  However, there is a right and wrong way to act when things are not going your way.  One group, in spite of being a top ranked tandem, had a tough time with some up and coming competitors.  The top ranked tandem supported each other, provided encouragement after mistakes and offered motivation when the going got tough.  They lost, and in spite of this upset, they couldn’t say enough good about their victorious competitors.  Their behavior was on display for everyone to see, and you could literally feel their credibility growing in the face of defeat because of how they conducted themselves. 

As a leader, you are on display every day and in every exchange and how you conduct yourself is observed very closely by all around you.  Lose your cool, snap at a subordinate, act like the spoiled tennis player above, and you not only fail to build your professional credibility, you damage it.  Alternatively, if you recognize that the moment in time when things are heading the wrong way is a remarkable opportunity to build credibility and create powerful learning opportunities for your team members, you will conduct yourself with grace under fire.

I’ve worked for both types of "tennis player leaders" above, and I can assure you that the no one wants to follow the spoiled one.  Remember to be thankful for the great opportunity you’ve been given the next time things don’t go your way.  Grace under pressure is the right choice.

Comments

  1. I have to push back a little on this one, Art. I’m not in favor of public profanity (even in the title of popular books about abusive leaders) and I’m definitely opposed to a boss who exploits his or her position to belittle team members.

    But my experience and research tell me that not all loud bosses are bad bosses and I want to make sure we’re clear that the content of malicious communication is usually what makes it wrong, not the volume.

    One of my research subjects in an early study of great supervisors was “Bill.” Bill was an exploder. That surprised me because I assumed that exploders would automatically set off negative reactions in their team members. When that wasn’t the case with Bill, I did some follow up research with the people who worked for him. Here’s what they told me.

    Bill didn’t blow up at people, he blew up at situations. He was an equal opportunity exploder. The explosion was over quickly. When he needed to talk to a team member about performance or behavior, that conversation was always private. His people saw Bill as fair. They thought his explosions were a side effect of his passion. As one of his team members put it, “It’s sometimes a little loud, but it’s never about you, so it’s OK.”

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