How to Lead Under Pressure: 4 Foundations You Need

Maintaining your composure and keeping your team moving forward requires four sturdy building blocks. Here’s how to forge them.

By Rob McKenna, Ph.D.

If you were better at dealing with pressure and maintained your capacity to communicate with others clearly while staying true to yourself, how would that change affect the people in your life? 

While your answer might be different from mine, we’d both agree the impact would probably be huge. Our capacity to stay clear, calm, convicted, and connected to others in real time, when the pressure is highest, is a big deal. A really big deal.

Having spent years studying leaders under pressure and the strategies that they use to navigate pressure effectively, I’ve learned a lot. I know that one of the most fundamental challenges for every leader is to stay true to their core convictions, while at the same time staying connected to the convictions of others—even with whom they may disagree.

I know that most people have a default emotional tendency to either get tough or to make peace, and that those tendencies require different developmental actions. I know that identifying your purpose for being in that high-pressure moment and the potential that might emerge, no matter how difficult, are keys to composure under pressure.

But what else can we do to become better versions of ourselves under pressure? In my book, Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, I begin by describing the foundation we can build even before we start to understand our defaults, strengths, and areas for development. I describe four foundational elements that you can be intentional about building long before the high-pressure moment ever comes.

What follows is an excerpt from Composed, and a description of each piece of the foundation that you can start building now. 

How to Prepare for Pressure 

Just because you walked across the stage at your high school graduation, it doesn’t mean you were prepared for college. Graduating may have been an indication of that preparation, but there was likely an important list of other fundamentals that were going to be the keys to your success at the next level. 

The factors that prepared you for what came next ideally had been in place long before you started applying to different colleges or jobs: a foundation of basic writing and communication skills, a family or community that supports you, and an educational system that challenged you and helped you build character.

If you’ve ever played amateur contractor for a project at your house that involved structural changes, you’ve experienced the necessity for a foundation. Ten years ago, contractors replaced a pair of posts that held up our patio roof. Because we’re now replacing the patio, I’ve discovered that those contractors failed to set those posts on a foundation of concrete, but instead simply put the posts in the ground. Ten years later, they’re once again rotten and will need to be replaced.

I didn’t know better back then, but I know better this time around. In the same way, there are fundamentals that, if we can get them in place, will provide the necessary foundation for handling life’s pressures more effectively. It isn’t enough to just put posts in place. It’s necessary to build our actions around a foundation that’s as solid as we can make it.

Foundational Element #1: Competence

Most high-pressure situations we face not only require some sort of actual skill, but involve our confidence in our ability to do that skill. 

Have you ever experienced someone who, in a moment of weakened inhibition, started to sing along with the radio? You realize that this person has a beautiful voice and so you tell them, “You have a beautiful singing voice.” What sometimes follows your compliment is, “No, no, no, I can’t sing.” In psychological terms, that belief in our ability is called self-efficacy. Our actual skills and beliefs about those skills have a profound impact on how we show up under pressure.

I believe that most people would perceive me as a fairly confident and self-assured person. I’m not saying it because I always feel it, but because others have told me so. It often surprises me because, like many people, I’m very aware of my insecurities and levels of actual and perceived incompetence. Nothing has illustrated the power of confidence related to my ability to be composed more than my time as a musician.

When you’re on a stage rehearsing with gifted musicians, nothing will reduce you to a useless bowl of mush more than when you’re asked to play a guitar solo for which you haven’t prepared. I’m a decent guitar player; however, I never devoted enough time refining my skills to be able to improvise on the spot. This is why rehearsal, feedback, and courage can all help to prepare us for these moments.

If you don’t have the time to prepare, be cautious of overstating your lack of preparation as a lack of the ability to learn a particular skill. At an even deeper level, some of us have a tendency to let our perceptions of our competence creep into our identity and our deeper feelings about ourselves. 

Our perceptions around our lack of ability could be based on something that simply isn’t true. I’m not suggesting we’re all good singers, but that we need to be thoughtful in labeling our inability to be competent in a high-pressure moment as a general lack of competence. Given time and dedication, almost anyone can learn to be more competent in high-pressure situations.

Foundational Element #2: Community 

Another important foundation you can build to set yourself up to be more composed under pressure is the community of people that surround you. Similar to competence, community not only includes those actual people, but the extent to which we believe that they’re there to support us. 

In my research team’s investment in hundreds of leaders, we’ve encouraged each leader to consider the strategic network of people surrounding them. This network includes the people who give them feedback, support them when they take risks, and help them identify possibilities in the face of situations where they may not see a way out. 

Without that community, high-pressure situations can become overwhelming and even paralyzing. We often dismiss these kinds of relationships as either touchy-feely or overly mechanized when they’re labeled strategic. However, it’s these relationships that provide a buffer against all the voices in our heads that tell us lies about us being underqualified, unworthy, or less than we really are.

Hopefully you’ve experienced this before. It’s a lot easier to make a leap of faith when you know there are some people around you who will love you whether you succeed or fail. They’ll encourage you to take a risk, give you advice on what to do after you jump, and tell you how you might feel when you take the leap. If identifying that network of support seems overwhelming to you, you aren’t alone. 

When we coach leaders, whether they’re parents or presidents, establishing a list of the people who play strategic support roles in their lives always requires vulnerability and courage. That feeling of uncertainty about who supports you is a common feeling. The power is moving through that feeling and getting on with establishing that community of support. There are people all around you who would be willing to support you if you ask.

Foundational Element #3: Culture

Culture surrounds all of us. It’s an invisible force that tells us what’s appropriate, what rules to follow, and what’s most important. Think about a specific area of your life where you feel some responsibility: What are the stated or unstated rules of engagement in that area of your life? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about those rules of engagement? 

Culture is impacted by physical objects and rules that we’ve experienced for so long that we no longer notice them. Similar to a light turning red at an intersection we drive through every day that causes us to stop, that invisible culture has the power to impact everything we do. 

Whether they’re physical objects or assumptions we follow on autopilot, culture includes things that are difficult for us to identify, but not difficult for us to follow. When we’re in high-pressure situations, we enter into working principles and rules that we’ve internalized. These are things that not only impact how we behave, but influence how we feel about ourselves. 

For the past two decades, I’ve reminded students that when they enter the working world, there will be an invisible culture that could begin to define them. Without being aware of it, they may become slaves to cultural pressures. While that sounds dark and dreary, there’s an upside. Mindfulness about the culture that surrounds us can provide the necessary launching pad for us to become the better versions of ourselves when the stakes are high. 

Foundational Element #4: Character

Character is something we all have. At the most fundamental level, character is an imprint. It’s the culmination of all the relationships and moments of our lives. 

Like a Douglas fir growing out of a cliff that overlooks the ocean, our character has been shaped by the winds that have blown in our faces for years, the water that has fed our roots, and the people who have carved their names in the bark that has served to protect us.

What we often miss is the power of our choices in shaping our character, and it just so happens that moments of high pressure force these choices. These include the choices that impact what we’ll do next, who we’ll follow, and what we’ll believe about ourselves. 

The choice regarding our character is simple: Will we be willing to become a better version of ourselves for the sake of those around us, or will we lock down and fail to learn in these moments?

The type of character we’ll embrace makes the difference between us being at the mercy of the storms, or active participants and leaders through them. We’re only victims of the high-pressure moments if we choose to be. The pressure can force us to freeze, blame, and retreat into ourselves, or it will give us an opportunity to embrace the moment as a moment that matters—a moment to realize there’s something to learn that could serve others through our response. 

It’s not easy, especially when we’re weary and tired from all the pressure, but it can be powerful if and when we realize the opportunity that pressure creates to refine our character.

We Know It When We Feel It 

I’ve talked to enough people to know that we all face moments where pressure gets the best of us.

My research suggests that whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a president, we all face situations that seem normal to others, but personally challenge our capacity to simultaneously stay true to what we know, listen to others, and manage the multiple voices in our heads. 

The good news is that we can build a more solid foundation. We start by being aware of the places where we feel competent, of the culture that surrounds us, the people that both support and challenge us, and by being willing to change and become better versions of ourselves.

Rob McKenna, Ph.D., is the founder of WiLD Leaders Inc., creator of the WiLD Toolkit, and chair of industrial-organizational psychology at Seattle Pacific University. His latest book, Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, focuses the specific strategies leaders can use to stay true to themselves and connected to others when it matters most. McKenna was recently named one of the top 30 most influential I-O psychologists.