How to Lead When You Are Under Pressure


There was a stretch of time in my mid-30’s when I went through what became known in our household as the Lost Year. Seriously, it was worst period of my life: I was in the middle of a brutally contentious divorce, the money was pouring out the door quicker than I could earn it, and people who I thought were my ‘ride or die’ friends vanished from the landscape overnight.

As the situation grew more and more desperate, I became convinced the entire universe was conspiring against me. I began to wilt under the pressure of unceasing fear and doubt. To add to the insanity, I was frantically trying to keep a start-up business afloat with a team of 20 employees. As things progressed, I found myself sliding into ultimate freak-out mode.

“Leadership is practiced not so much in words an in attitude and actions.”  ~ Harold S. Geneen

As I slipped into panic and desperation, I watched my team members begin expressing their own fear and uncertainty. I overheard snippets of conversation as they spoke in hushed tones among themselves and I soon understood they were very aware that the owner of the company they worked for was deep in crisis.

They began to play off of my energy. For every unanswered question, they filled in the blanks with worst-case scenarios conjured up in their minds. There was a growing vibe of negativity that subtly flowed through the business and if something didn’t change, I knew my team – and clientele - would abandon ship.

In the middle of the emotional storm, I had to step back and objectively evaluate the situation. After hours of soul searching (and a few glasses of wine) I was forced to acknowledge a tough reality: All indications of trouble circled back to me. I was the poison that had infiltrated the business. My attitude and actions were frightening my team and the lack of stability I conveyed had left them with a sense of fear and uncertainty.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”  ~ Nelson Mandela

I had to check my baggage – and I had to do it quickly.

I could no longer afford the luxury of sprinting distractedly through the door late in the morning, eyes red and swollen from crying, and proceed to hide out in my office away from my employees while they valiantly worked to hold my business together. They needed assurance that they were in competent hands and that someone was looking out for them. They needed a leader they could follow without fear.

In short, being a hot mess does not encourage confidence in the troops.

Living through this experience, and turning it around, taught me these valuable leadership lessons:

Because it’s happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s about you:

My team didn't need to know how desperate my situation was, how afraid I felt, or any part of the financial and emotional anxiety I was dealing with. Leaders don’t overshare, they don’t make it personal, and they keep it positive as much as humanly possible. If your life sucks, no one in your professional circle should have a clue that it does – that’s what friends are for.

Your example sets the standard:

If you want a positive team that gets things done, you must lead from a positive place. When a team member does well, acknowledge it. Coach those who struggle. Above all, listen to your team. They have their own fears and concerns, and work may be the one place they can escape them for a little while. Help them feel a sense of stability and purpose. Make sure your clients and employees see you as a consummate professional who is always calm and stable. Keep it positive and never ask your team to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.

When you need to be “on,” bring your A-Game:

Whether you’re dealing with your own company or meeting with a client, be on point. Be focused. Be present. Be engaged. Bring enthusiasm, curiosity, and quality to every interaction. If you must, take a minute (or ten) before walking through the door to set your intention, focus, and get grounded.

Shift your perspective:

Many people let bad situations stop them. I promise that even the ugliest of times will pass. Like Winston Churchill said, “If you're going through hell, keep going.” In other words, don’t abandon hope, never surrender, and don’t turn a bad period into a bad life. So, what if you don’t have control over your current situation? You have full control over how you respond. Whatever makes you feel optimistic, invite more of it into your life. Find things that you are grateful for – even if they seem small and insignificant. As your outlook changes, you will become more resilient and adept at meeting challenge head-on.

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”  ~ Thomas Paine

My circumstances at the time absolutely sucked – and they were realistically going to continue on that way for the near future. Instead of giving in to the urge to totally lose it, I chose to reclaim my power and refused to give it away to naysayers, haters and doubters. I got a support system of true friends, who weren’t afraid to kick my ass when I needed it, and I began to focus on my attitude. Even when I wasn’t feeling it, I stepped through the door of my business with a smile and enthusiastic greeting for my team, eager to start the day. I stayed visible and made engagement with employees and customers priority #1.

Change didn’t come overnight, but things slowly got better. My team began to reflect the confidence I projected, and we created a sense of fun and teamwork. My business went on to win several “Best Of” awards, was featured on a television travel and leisure show, and became recognized as a go-to destination in our region. By the time I sold the business, it had become a stable enterprise with a top-notch team.

"The key to winning is poise under stress."  ~ Paul Brown

Was it easy? No. The path is rarely easy. It was brutally hard work and it took a real and focused effort to drive meaningful change. Having weathered my share of challenge, I can only assure you that the outcome is worth the effort. Stay focused.

It doesn’t matter if you’re running your own company or working for someone else. Check your baggage at the door. Cut out drama and uncertainty. Like attracts like: Positive attitude and right action are contagious and practiced consistently, will point the way to overcoming challenges and your ultimate success.

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