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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

Leadership Pressure is a Privilege

Leadership creates pressure. In the Netflix series, The Playbook, Doc Rivers shares a philosophy that inspired the Boston Celtics to a championship and his response to racism while being the Los Angeles Clippers head coach. One valuable lesson he shared for leaders to consider is that pressure is a privilege. In speaking with frontline to c-suite leaders from organizations across different industries, one common theme is that today's leaders are under immense pressure. It is easy for leaders to become overwhelmed amid the fast pace digital business environment. According to a recent leadership survey, eighty-eight percent of leaders indicate that work is the principal source of stress in their lives, and their leadership role increases stress levels. Leading successful organizations creates both personal and professional high-pressure situations that result in stress. It is easy to think of pressure as a negative and something to be avoided, but should you?

"A soft, easy life is not worth living if it impairs the fiber of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great, and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage." Theodore Roosevelt

What is the alternative to leadership pressure? No productive conflict? No goals? No board meetings? No difficult customers? No organizational talent challenges? Modern organizations are like pressure cookers. Leaders serve as pressure relief valves preventing catastrophic disasters and when needed increasing organizational pressure to maximize performance. Here are a few reasons to embrace the leadership journey and the stress it brings.

Pressure Creates Change

Leadership is about change, and change can be challenging. In the book Leading Change, renowned change management thought leader John Kotter identified that overcoming complacency to change requires a sense of urgency. Leaders in a fast-changing world need to be influential in articulating their vision and paradoxically open to change as the vision becomes irrelevant in the world's turbulence. Leading change creates pressure and stressful situations. While too little or too much stress creates anxiety and health problems, research at UC Berkeley demonstrated that some stress improves performance and health. Pressure influences leaders and organizations to change and reject the status quo. No organization is looking to stay the same, and pressure is a powerful change agent for creating a sense of urgency.

Pressure Creates Learning

Leaders need to be perpetual learners because the future is unpredictable. However, shouldn't the learning process be as pressure and stress-free as possible? A foundational research study on learning discovered that an element of struggle significantly improves long-term retention. While pressure can slow the learning rate at the moment, it improves long-term retention and application transfer. Pressure creates desirable difficulty and enhances the learning opportunity and the opportunity for personal and professional growth.

In an interview with tennis icon Billie Jean King she provides the following pressure is a privilege quote while reflecting on the opportunity of being at Center Court at Wimbledon. "Usually, if you have tremendous pressure, it’s because an opportunity comes along. Give me the ball. Give me the problem to solve. Let’s figure this out. Let’s go." Billie Jean King

Pressure Creates Purpose

High-pressure situations reveal more about who you are than the specific skills you possess. The unfortunate reality is that it often takes the pressure of a moment of crisis to break away from the day-to-day and challenge our assumptions about our purpose or organization's purpose. There is no better life lived than a life lived on purpose. Studies have demonstrated that leading with purpose results in higher personal satisfaction, performance, innovation, and economic growth.

"Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater." — Viktor Frankl

How to Make Your Best Decision Under Pressure

Pressure is a reality that comes with leading a successful organization. How you approach the pressure makes a difference in the outcome for you and those you lead. Try these proven strategies to make your best decision under pressure:

  • Visualize the desired outcome. Athletes are trained to visualize themselves successfully achieving their goals before events. Numerous scientific studies link creative visualization to improved performance, goal achievement, and stress management. Research supports that creative practice boosts our confidence and competence.

  • Be curious. Asking questions helps reveal alternative scenarios. The field of strategic foresight offers some great tools for assisting leaders with seeing around the corners, which can lead to feeling more competent and confident about your decision.

  • Don't be stuck on stupid. One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from a military commander serving after hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. At the time, the community was paralyzed and lacked direction. In an interview, the commander said he didn't know what specific time frames looked like but could guarantee the recovery operations would not be stuck on stupid. Leaders with a bias toward action and making decisions for the right reasons helps to overcome the fear of failure that comes with the pressure of the situation.

  • Use an executive coach. Most leaders indicate that their organizations do not provide the support needed to help them manage the increasing levels of stress they face. A leadership coach facilitates experimentation and self-discovery through the application of what is discussed. Skillful executive coaching enables you to dance in the present moment and take the actions necessary for what matters to you.

The reality of a volatile work environment is that it is impossible to train for every potential cross-cultural leadership situation. As a leader, you are asked questions that have no known answer. Seeing the pressure of leadership as a privilege can help you enjoy the journey.

Visit our executive coaching page to learn more about how we help you achieve your personal or professional goals or partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and corporate culture.


Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.

Campbell, M., Baltes, J.I., Martin, A., & Meddings, K. (2019). The stress of leadership. Center for Creative Leadership.

Ekeocha, T. (2015). The effects of visualization and guided imagery in sports performance

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.

Ottesen, K. (2019). Tennis icon Billie Jean King on fighting for equal pay for women: Pressure is a privilege. The Washington Post.

Pomerantz (Eds.) & FABBS Foundation, Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (p. 56–64). Worth Publishers.

Powell, A. (2018). When science meets mindfulness. The Harvard Gazette.

Quinn, R. E., & Thakor, A. V. (2019). The economics of higher purpose: Eight counterintuitive steps for creating a purpose-driven organization. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Incorporated.

Sanders, R. (2013). Researchers find out why some stress is good for you. Berkley News.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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