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Calm Under Pressure: Leadership Lessons from a Bomb Disposal Expert

by | May 22, 2017 | approachable leadership

What do a Hindu Priest and Bomb Disposal Expert have in common?

Let me make a guess about you. Your life is hectic. You begin your day with one to-do list, only to find it blown up within minutes after you arrive to work. Some days it feels like the world conspired to throw a bomb into anything you choose to do. Instead of just working your list you now have the job of bomb disposal. And as Batman quips in my favorite line of the 1966 Batman Movie (please don’t judge), “some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

In a sense this is truly the job of leaders. When things are going according to plan people don’t really need a lot of leadership. But when everything is falling apart around them? When things are messy? People need a leader the most when they don’t know what to do.

You know what I’m talking about. Staying calm under pressure. The poop has hit the fan. Everything grinds to a halt. No one knows how to fix the problem. This is when true leaders step up. Because someone must decide what to do next. Keep things moving forward. Calm everyone down and help them perform under pressure.

This is what Eric Barker wrote about in a recent article where he interviewed an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) or bomb disposal expert. My favorite quote from the article:

“EOD is the science of vague assumptions based on debatable data taken from inconclusive experiments with instruments of problematic accuracy by persons of questionable mentality.”

Sounds like a great definition of leadership to me. The stakes aren’t always life or death (but they can be). But whether you are disposing of a bomb or helping solve a workplace dilemma your job is to deal with uncertainty – stay calm under pressure – in situations where the stakes are high.

3 Tips to Stay Calm Under Pressure

I know none of us will be defusing a bomb anytime soon (I hope!) But high pressure situations are relative. And you’re probably like me and have found yourself in the heat of the moment, not knowing what to do, but needing to make a decision anyway. Which brings me to the Hindu Priest.

calm under pressure

Neither of these guys are bomb disposal experts.

Last week my Entrepreneur’s Organization Chapter hosted Dandapani for our annual member appreciation event. A big part of his presentation dealt with practical, everyday tips on staying focused and mindful in a turbulent business world. These tips related well to what Barker’s bomb disposal expert lays out for us. The first tip for remaining calm under pressure is to:

1. Avoid “The Rabbit Hole” and Do a Threat Assessment

The rabbit hole is all the what-ifs. This is by far the biggest barrier to forward movement. Because what-ifs are just that. They are hypotheticals. And they can be time-wasters.

The rabbit hole is understandable. We want to make the best decision possible. Especially when the stakes are high. However, we often let the what-ifs take our awareness away from what’s really important.

Dandapani teaches that awareness is like a flashlight that we shine to different areas of our brain. A lot of functional MRI studies show this happening in real time. Is your focus on fear? Your awareness will light up the “fear” area of your brain (which will literally light up on an f-MRI). Is your focus on resources or problem solving? A different area of your brain lights up.

Your best tool for making a comprehensive decision in the heat of the moment is to do a threat assessment. That is, to ask yourself, “What kind of problem is this?”

To do that, you must leverage your experience. If you’ve been a leader for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered a similar problem to the one you’re facing. Even if you’re a new leader, you’ve probably encountered a similar situation outside of work. You just have a different vantage point on the issue. That may even serve you better.

No matter your prior experience, do your best to narrow down the issue at hand. Generalize if you must. Then you can proceed with a clear, focused mindset.

The next tip from Barker’s bomb disposal expert:

2. Emphasize the Positive and Focus on What You Can Control

This is where you get the “calm” in keeping calm under pressure.

When you focus only on the negatives, all the challenges that surround the issue (and you light up the fear and anxiety centers of the brain), you’re more likely to lose your cool. Focusing on challenges outside of your control just reiterates over and over that you aren’t in control.

Take the control back. Find the positives. Focus your awareness light on those things. And not only will you be much more likely keep your cool, you are also more likely to make a decision that will work out in your favor. One of the things Dandapani also taught is that when we bring our awareness to our bigger goals at work and in life, that the path will often reveal itself in ways that were hidden before. Once you focus on what is possible – rather than what isn’t – your brain starts to notice other connections that were invisible before.

Not only that. You will be more optimistic and your team will pick up on that.

Last, but not least, tip 3 for staying calm under pressure is to:

3. Know Your Next Step

Barker writes,

“The secret to calm and focus is simply deciding what you need to do next. That prevents the gap from opening up where the speculation and worrying grows.”

This is so important and brings me back to the point of not trying to force yourself to know exactly how everything will work out. The biggest and boldest strategies happen through baby steps. One thing at a time. The next step is all you need to worry about.

Last week I finished The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This is a major theme of that (terrific) book: you have no idea how the real-world will react to what your hypothesis about how to respond. Because of that you should focus on the smallest possible step that will provide proof that you can use to inform the next step. He calls this the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). For leaders I’d call it MVL (Minimum Viable Leadership). In other words take the smallest step designed to resolve the current situation (consistent with the long term vision and values of the organization). Then see what is revealed after that experience.

Some may think steps 2 and 3 contradict. I’m supposed to focus on my big picture goals and the small picture next steps at the same time? Yes, but here’s how. The idea is to always know your bigger purpose (what you are striving for) without letting that interfere with taking your next small step (what you can control). Then evaluate your progress based on real-world information (versus what’s going on in your head).

And when you’re not sure what even the next baby step should be?

Head back up to Step 1. Let go of thoughts that aren’t helpful (stop shining your awareness light in the unproductive areas) then move to Step 2 by focusing on your purpose and what you can control. As you do that, the next small steps will show up.

What’s been your craziest experience of trying to remain calm under pressure? How did you handle it? Do you have any tips you can share?

By the way, Eric Barker just released his first book (not surprisingly it’s titled Barking Up the Wrong Tree). Check it out!