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Leadership Pressure is a Privilege



Leadership creates pressure. In the Netflix series The Playbook, Doc Rivers shares the 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 shares for leaders to consider is a mindset that "pressure is a privilege." What is the alternative to leadership pressure? No productive conflict? No aligned goals? No board meetings? No difficult customers? As an executive coach, I spend a lot of time speaking with leaders. One common theme is the immense pressure they are under. It is easy for leaders to become quickly overwhelmed by the increasingly complex and fast-paced digital business environment. Stress is a serious issue facing leaders. Evidence from a large global study suggests that 72% of leaders report that they often feel used up at the end of the day, a 12% increase from two years prior. Leading successful organizations creates personal and professional situations that result in increased stress. It seems logical to think of pressure as a negative and something to be avoided, but as a leader, should you? Here are three reasons to embrace the leadership journey and the pressure it brings and four tips for making better decisions under pressure.





"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


Reason #1: Pressure Accelerates Change


One reason to embrace pressure is that pressure accelerates change, and leadership is about change. 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, at the same time, be open to changes as the idea needs to change due to 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 move in new directions and reject the status quo.


No organization is looking to stay the same, and pressure is a powerful change agent for leaders trying to accelerate change in the organization.



Reason #2: Pressure Creates Learning


Leaders and organizations need to learn at a pace consistent with change. They need to perpetually learn because the future is unpredictable. You are either ripe and rotting or green and growing.


But, shouldn't the learning process be as free from stress 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.


"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




Reason #3: 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 crisis to break away from the day-to-day. Pressure creates a reason to challenge assumptions about our purpose or the 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


How you approach decisions while under pressure makes a difference in the outcome for you and those you lead. Here are four tips to help you make your best decision:


Decision-Making Tip #1: 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.


Check out this short video from an Olympic athlete on the power an use of mental imagery.





Decision-Making Tip #2: 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.


The Futures Wheel, STEEPLE, and scenario planning are a few tools that can help leaders and organizations break free from a fixed mindset.





Decision-Making Tip #3: Don't get 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 help to overcome the fear of failure that comes with the pressure of the situation.





Decision-Making Tip #4: Avoid isolation.

Most leaders indicate that their organization does 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 during the coaching conversation. Skillful executive coaching enables you to "dance in the present moment" and take the actions necessary for what matters to you.





Modern organizations are like pressure cookers. Great leadership serves as a pressure control valve. When needed, releasing pressure to prevent catastrophic disasters and increasing organizational pressure when it's too low to maximize performance.


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.





References:


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.


DDI. 2023 Global Leadership Forecast. Development Dimensions International.



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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