How leaders handle pressure

How leaders handle pressure ••

Pressure is a constant factor in leadership. Leaders face people, process and performance pressure on a daily basis. The higher the rating of an organization, the greater the pressure the leader is subjected to. Leaders are under the pressure of taking right personnel decisions, improving organizational profitability, expanding its scope, dealing with organizational complexities and properly positioning the organization for continuous prosperity. So, for a leader, pressure is a reality because it is unavoidable. More often than not, leaders feed on pressure.

A leader can either soar on pressure or be swept away by it. Success in leadership is often dependent on how well a leader is able to handle pressure. Learning to manage pressure is critical not just for the leader’s wellbeing but for the health of the organization, because an organization can either stay afloat or go under as a result of what the leaders do when under pressure. So, it is pertinent that a leader should be able to manage pressure.

What is pressure?

Pressure is a situation that stretches a leader. It is a situation that demands more than the usual from a leader. Pressure forces a leader to think differently and act unpredictably. If it is a normal situation, the leader is already familiar with it and it does not pose any disruptive threat, so he copes easily. But once a situation becomes unusual, it mounts pressure on the leader and he has to do the unusual to address it.

When under pressure, a leader either travels the highway of integrity or goes for the shortcut. Those who travel the highway become heroes while those who balk under pressure and do the untoward end up as victims of the situation.

Pressure reveals the strength or otherwise of leaders. While leaders who quake under pressure are of a weak fiber, those who stand up to pressure project themselves as strong leaders.

Enron’s misadventure

At the crest of its operation, Enron Corporation was an investor’s delight and the nightmare of competition because it was a very profitable organization. At its peak, its shares were trading for $90.75. So outstanding was Enron that it was voted as America’s Most Innovative Company by Fortune Magazine for six consecutive years between 1996 and 2001. But the company eventually collapsed and became bankrupt because the leadership could not withstand pressure.

In the late 1990s, the dot-com business was the in-thing in the United States of America. Their shares were highly valued and the companies became money spinners. Enron got into the fray by establishing Enron Online (EOL), an electronic trading website that focused on commodities. The company did well at the initial stage and this motivated Enron to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the business. But the investment did not produce any impressive yield. The situation was compounded when the USA slid into recession in 2000. It later dawned on those running Enron that the business had gone awry but rather than making a clean breast of the development, the CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, hid the financial losses in what he called mark-to-market accounting. Arthur Andersen was invited to audit the accounts of the company and it gave Enron a clean bill of health. This made investors and regulators to believe that the company was doing well.

However, the deceit could not continue for long as the fraud was discovered. The discovery sounded the death knell on Enron. Several of its executives were tried for insider trading and fraud; they were found guilty and jailed. Andersen too was not spared as the backlash of Enron’s collapse affected its profile for a long time.

Enron’s executives were under pressure to turn in good financial report even when the company was not doing well so that they could appear effective. Instead of stating the facts as they were, the executives gave in to pressure and did ‘creative accounting’. That saved them from disgrace at the initial stage but their perfidy could not be shielded for long. The truth was eventually revealed. Those people lost their positions, lost their organizations and lost their freedom.

Those who cannot withstand pressure always pay dearly for the temporary pleasure their indiscretion gives them.

How leaders manage pressure

Leaders can cope with pressure by doing the following, among other things.

Develop you character

Competence qualifies one for a position but it is by character that positions are sustained. A good character is akin to a wall of defence which protects one from external aggression. Many of the people who crumble in office or are disgraced out of office are lacking in character. As a leader grows his competences so should he grow his character. If a leader’s competence outgrows his character, he will lack the capacity to keep himself in that position or even position himself for a higher responsibility.

A man of character crosses a bridge before he gets to it. He travels to the future and takes some hard decisions about what he will do or will not do in certain situations. Therefore, he knows his bounds. A man of character knows the call he should not make. He knows the deal he should not seal. He also knows the demand he should not make.

Strong character helps the leader to keep his core values in view when there is pressure. He does not allow the heat of the moment to melt him and turn him to something else.

Those who grow their competences at the expense of their character are bound to regret their wrong judgment later.

Manage your expectations

Many leaders subject themselves to avoidable pressure because they have set their expectations too high. Wise leaders never place too much hope on persons, process or programmes because they know that the best of men and machines fail not because they want to but because they cannot help the situation. If expectations are within reasonable limits, coping with disappointments would be manageable as adjustments would be easy. But when expectations are set way too high, coping with disappointments that arise could be difficult and this could put the leader under pressure.

Great leaders don’t place too much expectation on themselves or their team members because they know that doing so does more harm than good.

Two critical features of goal setting are that goals must both be realistic and achievable. Those who set gargantuan goals to impress others end up putting themselves under pressure.

Shake off disappointments and move on

When results are contrary to expectations, do not dwell on what did not work and focus on what can work. Don’t spend too much time moaning over what was not that you miss what can be. Crying over spilt milk is a waste of time and emotions. When a door closes, many more are open. Give every task your best. But if after doing your best, the result does not justify the investment of money and time, let the words of Art Williams be your comfort. Williams says all you can do is all you can do and all you can do is enough. Don’t focus too much on unmet targets that you miss the new ones.

Separate the urgent from the important

Pressure arises sometimes as a result of the inability of leaders to separate the important from the urgent. Everyday a leader has to choose between paying attention to what is urgent and what is important. The urgent is that task that has to be attended to immediately. However, it is not every urgent task that is important. A leader must be able to distinguish what is important from what is not. Leaders only attend to important things that only them can do. Learning to do this frees them from very many tasks. But those who have not learnt to focus only on the important things have to contend with everything and that mounts pressure on them.

Learn to delegate

One of the major functions of leaders is to develop other leaders. New leaders are developed when team members are given tasks that will task their creativity or competence. By allowing others to execute certain tasks, not only are leaders equipping their team members and developing capacity, they are also freeing themselves from unnecessary pressure. Some leaders are wary of delegating tasks to their subordinates for the fear that their performance of the tasks may be less than satisfactory. While that may be true, leaders are not described as mentors for nothing. When leaders delegate and guide, they are preparing their subordinates for the time they will delegate and not need to guide.

Leaders who fail to delegate to others have a bloated view of their importance and contribution and a skewed opinion about what others can do.

Last line

Leaders who cannot manage pressure can hardly manage any other thing.


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