If you listen to the press conferences after a NBA playoff or finals game each year, a marquee player always reveals how his play is amped up compared to the regular season. But how does one really perform at a champion level? There’s ambiguity in a game – a key player’s injury can redefine a team’s chances to win. In business, leaders are surrounded by ambiguity. Just ask Carlos Ghosn, the Nissan/Renault CEO who ran two car companies during the ambiguity of a world economic struggle.
In sports, in business or in life, why do some people rise to the occasion while other struggle? Is it luck or something more?
Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others is by Justin Menkes, a leading executive consultant for Spencer Stuart and author of Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have. I received a review copy from Harvard Business Review, and dug into a great breakdown of the qualities one should develop to grow a business under stressful conditions.
Learn what it takes to manage in an uncertain environment
The image of coal and diamonds on the book jacket is appropriate. As you probably know, diamonds are created over time by shifting pressures in the earth. Menkes asserts that a dramatically shifting workplace, expressed as a result of economic uncertainty, has a similar effect on forming leader wisdom and experience:
“The new paradigm for leadership becomes a fluid virtuous cycle of exchange and growth between leaders and the people they lead.”
As a rebuttal to the aforementioned cycle, Menkes describes the three cornerstone catalysts needed to be successful:
- Realistic optimism – confidence about actual circumstances without delusion or irrationality
- Subservience to purpose – the consideration of how you contribute to the further efforts to achieve a goal
- Finding order in chaos – finding invigoration in complicated problems, leading to meaningful solutions
It’s the third point that may be most directly helpful to small businesses. Menkes offers perspective on maintaining clarity of thought when a million things needs to happen at once. Sound familiar, small business owners?
Menkes shows examples of each tenet in action, including an example of execs who successfully manifest all three tenets. Dave Dillion, CEO of Kroger, is mentioned as having identified a trend during an offsite retreat with employees and vendors. It would have been overlooked had there been no moment of clarity available.
What you may want to read again and again in Better Under Pressure:
- A brief evaluation of your own level of realistic optimism
- What the thought process of success entails in “Learning How To Realize Potential”
- “Maintaining Clarity of Thought”
- The value of intelligence tests – understanding what is essential to think clearly, including a segment about making adrenaline your friend
This book is naturally rich with insight and free of verbose jargon. Menkes offers intriguing ideas about separating frustration from ego-crushing shame, which impedes the real need: the commitment to manage business challenges.
“Failures do elicit a feeling of deep frustration in masters of today’s competitive climate, but these downfalls do not elicit shame. Shame reflects a deeper uncertainty about your own competence and is much more threatening to your sense of stability. If you feel the recurring shame about your failures, you ignore their existence altogether. This defense mechanism is useful in protecting your short-term sense of self esteem, but …you no longer have the opportunity to face your challenge and ultimately conquer it.”
The insights will become a personal guide for reflection about your business and your place in the business world.
Learn how some common beliefs may not be useful to face real pressure
Menke debunks a number of commonly shared beliefs, not to just propel his own thesis, but to debunk them in a thoughtful, eye-opening way. An example on the idea of life balance is not meant to turn folks into workaholics, but to help them realize their potential.
“On the contrary the happiest and most satisfied people tend to spend the majority of their time and energy in effortful activities, not leisure. This is because self-esteem can only be generated by distinguishing yourself through purposeful work…When you believe strongly in the importance of your enterprise, there’s nothing you’d rather do than pursue it.”
This is my favorite comment, because it, along with other passages will have you constantly assessing your actions against your reality, which is the point of Menke’s observation of how leaders tap into each of the three catalysts examined. According to Menke, they delve into the catalysts “in a recursive fluid way so that it isn’t always easy to tease apart where one ability ends and another begins.”
Better Under Pressure compliments books like Clutch, but with examples more specific to organizations other than professional sports. Even if you operate a one-person small business, it will give you a blueprint for how to conduct your best performance under pressure.