How Leaders Maintain Composure In Challenging Times

Twitter Note: Originally, this was going to be one of my standard article reviews. In the process of doing so, however, I rapidly found myself at over a page and I still had more to write. As such, this is more of a hybrid where I create my own post using an article as the […]

Written By chris

On September 14, 2014

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Note: Originally, this was going to be one of my standard article reviews. In the process of doing so, however, I rapidly found myself at over a page and I still had more to write. As such, this is more of a hybrid where I create my own post using an article as the structure for discussion.

The article titled, “7 Ways Leaders Maintain Their Composure during Difficult Times” by Glenn Llopis at Forbes on 20 January 2014 provides seven tips to help leaders maintain their composure during difficult or stressful times. The appearance of a stressed leader does not inspire confidence in your followers – just mentally picture any war movie for good and bad examples of composure. (Hint – it’s like that in real life, too!) These tips are:

  1. Don’t allow your emotions to get in the way (you must maintain objectivity)
  2. Don’t take things personally (this leads to greater emotion – see point 1)
  3. Keep a positive mental attitude (it can be tough, but you need to show your followers a positive path)
  4. Remain fearless (ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen – often, the outcome isn’t as bad as it would first appear).
  5. Respond decisively (nothing instills doubt, worry, and frustration more than a wishy-washy leader)
  6. Take accountability (you accept responsibility and take steps towards fixing the issue)
  7. Act like you’ve been there before (you’ve been there, survived, got the T-shirt…)

I love Glenn’s work – he writes a lot of great material that provides food for thought. I will, however, offer some different yet complementary perspectives on some of the points that he raises:

  1. Emotions getting in the way. Leaders aren’t robots, and neither are your followers. Someone showing no emotion can be almost as troubling as someone showing too much emotion. People connect through emotion. As such, I believe that you need to channel your emotion. Maintain a steady keel most of the time, but there are times that you want to increase your emotion to achieve a “surge” in achieving group goals. Be very careful, however, about not losing control or using it too often – unless used sparingly, this tool will lose its effectiveness with overuse.
  2. Don’t take things personally. This one is hard to do – chances are that you are putting your heart and soul into the work that you are doing. Someone challenging your thought process or your work can therefore be seen as someone challenging your very essence. What you need to do is reframe the situation. Imagine that you can float above the surroundings, much like the Scrooge overflights in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Try to see the situation from all angles – can you perhaps see why another path was chosen or why a different decision was made? It may not make you feel any better, but I believe that you will get a more well-rounded understanding of the situation.
  3. Keep a positive mental attitude. I have personally been involved in more emergency situations than I care to remember. In each of those times, I have either watched others or have been watched for the reaction to the incident at hand. People will look at the leader to provide a cue on what to do and how to act. If the leader remains calm, the followers are more likely to stay calm as well. Panic accomplishes little; thoughtful ‘accelerated’ actions can quickly resolve an emergency (I’m still here…) Not every situation is life-threatening, but this principle applies in everyday life. If you keep reading until the end, you’ll see a joke that speaks to this principle.
  4. Remain fearless. Perhaps it’s just the title, but I believe that “remain fearless” is a misnomer. Fear is a natural state within humans – you can’t remove it from your personality. What you can control, however, is your reaction to your fear. I believe that Bruce Lee said it best, “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to act in the presence of fear”. Therefore, I would change the title of this bullet to “remain courageous.”
  5. Respond decisively. I’ve heard the expression “Fake it ‘til you make it,” and there is a certain amount of truth to that. You will project an air of confidence, and people will react in ways that would support that projection – in a sense, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. What I would caution, however, is that you do not project so much confidence that people switch off their minds in trying to help solve the problem at hand “phew – someone else has this!” Instead, lead your team in coming up with a plan on how you’re going to solve the issue. They will feel much more empowered, and you get the benefit of harnessing more brainpower to solve the problem.
  6. Take accountability. I agree fully that leaders accept ultimate responsibility, but it can be hard for people who are starting out their leadership journey to understand “why” this is so important. If you don’t accept responsibility, you can’t take ownership of the problem – you need to own the problem to fix the problem. Yes, “Bob” may be the one who did the mistake – it sounds easy to blame Bob. But if you take responsibility, you start looking at the problem under a different lens. Could you have improved your planning process to be able to anticipate and fix the problem at hand before it became a major concern? Could you have come up with a system that would have prevented the problem? Even if you really want to focus on Bob, instead could you look at your hiring or on-boarding process that would identify missing skill sets? Each of these questions helps you look at solving the root of the problem, and not just solving the manifestation of that problem.
  7. Act like you’ve been there before. I like that the article highlights that although you may not have gone through this particular situation before, you have gone through the problem solving process – there are transferable skills and thoughts that can help you do better each time you go through a problem. The above speaks to experience, but how do you get experience, especially if you are just starting on leadership journey? Look for others who have documented their experience in books, journals, magazine articles, etc. Coaches and mentors can also offer a wealth of knowledge, and should be able to apply that knowledge to the issue that you are facing.

Although we may have some different approaches to how leaders should maintain composure, it is important to note that I agree with Glenn about the importance of leaders maintaining their composure. It is one of the best and fastest ways to see you through the issue at hand.

I have spent nearly 25 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, so I tend to have a nautical perspective on things. In that spirit, and to tie in the point about how followers look towards their leaders for cues on how to think and act, here’s the joke that I promised earlier (author unknown):

Long ago, when sailing ships ruled the sea, this captain and his crew were always in danger of being boarded by pirates from a pirate ship. One day while they were sailing, they saw that a pirate ship had sent a boarding party to try and board their ship. The crew became worried, but the Captain was calm. He bellowed to his First Mate, “Bring me my red shirt!” The First Mate quickly got the Captain’s red shirt, which the captain put on. Then he led his crew into battle against the mean pirates. Although there were some casualties among the crew, the pirates were defeated.

Later that day, the lookout screamed that there were two pirate vessels sending two boarding parties towards their ship. The crew was nervous, but the Captain, calm as ever, bellowed, “Bring me my red shirt!” And once again the battle was on! The Captain and his crew fought off the boarding parties, though this time more casualties occurred.

Weary from the battles, the men sat around on deck that night recounting the day’s events when an ensign looked at the Captain and asked, “Sir, why did you call for your red shirt before the battle?” The Captain, giving the ensign a look that only a captain can give, explained, “If I am wounded in battle, the red shirt does not show the blood, so you men will continue to fight unafraid.” The men sat in silence. They were amazed at the courage of such a man.

As dawn came the next morning, the lookout screamed that there were pirate ships, 10 of them, all with boarding parties on their way. The men became silent and looked to the Captain, their leader, for his usual command. The Captain, calm as ever, bellowed, ‘Bring me my brown pants!!!’


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