Can You Lead Under Extreme Stress?

Accountability Resilience Well-being


Key Point: Taking deliberate action is a key element for effectively leading under the emotional heat of extremely stressful situations. As noted in a recent Harvard Business Review blog, acts of violence are not the only extreme situations that a leader may need to confront. HBR asked the following: If the unthinkable unfolds, “How can you practice leadership if you don’t know when or where you’ll be called to lead?”

The author asked Col. Casey Haskins, the former Director of Military Instruction at West Point, what his recommendations might be. His comments included:

“When we make decisions very quickly under stress, we don’t usually have access to a full understanding of the situation, and we don’t have access to all of our calm, rational resources.” He goes on to note: “Even if you don’t know the specifics, your odds are much better if you act than if you don’t.” Why? Because, “If you’re already acting, that by itself helps you remain calm.” And more…

“You have to train so that what you’re really practicing is staying calm, thinking quickly, and problem-solving. Deliberate thinking itself becomes a drilled, automatic response. Your decisions will still have a very high error rate — your error rate making decisions under stress is much higher than when you’re calm, rational, talking like we are right now — but that is still better than the error rate you’ll have if you do nothing.”

Character Moves:

  1. We need to PRACTICE staying calm, thinking deliberately, and critically taking action. By doing this, we will be practicing leadership. The key thing is to practice when we don’t think it counts. Practicing in “smaller” situations will prepare us for the moment the “big one comes.” And that big moment, which hopefully does not involve violence, will come to all of us. We need to be ready.
  2. If we look for it, there are opportunities to practice taking deliberate action. It may be a stressful meeting, a traffic jam, a loved one needing emergency medical attention, etc. The key thing is to recognize that there is a space or gap between stimulus and response. (See my previous blog on utilizing the space). When we effectively use that space to measure our response, we are likely to make more deliberate and better action-based decisions. 
  3. Remember that taking action under stress is much better than paralysis and taking no action, (the proverbial “deer in headlights”). As Col. Haskins states above, if you’re already in motion, (but NOT panicking), that by itself contributes to being calmer and more deliberate. If we make the space noted above too big, we might become slow and stuck. 
  4. Practicing to take advantage of the “space” between stimulus and response, will also help you take into account others in your presence. The brave, beautiful, loving, teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, practiced for a school lock down and as a result took deliberate action that saved many lives. And that is heroic leadership under the most extreme, and deadly stress.

Leadership under extreme stress in The Triangle,