by Paul Sullivan
Who is the most “clutch” person you know? That’s the question I always get when I talk about how people succeed under pressure. My answer is always a military leader — someone trained to make combat decisions with life-or-death consequences. No business leader or athlete can ever lay claim to that.
A few weeks ago, I addressed several classes of cadets at the United States Military Academy. I left more impressed by the military’s leadership training than I was already. And I started to wonder why so few corporate leaders have the mindset of young cadets.
After years of research and writing, I went to West Point knowing what it takes to excel under pressure. All clutch leaders share five traits regardless of the field they are in:
- Focus. This allows you to block out everything that distracts from your goal. It is not to be confused with concentration. Focus is a laser beam; concentration is merely a flashlight.
- Discipline. This allows you to stay the course under pressure and is always an internal battle.
- Adaptability. Colonel Thomas Kolditz describes this as “fighting the fight, not fighting the plan”. In other words, don’t let your ego stop you from abandoning the wrong course of action.
- Being Present. This helps you respond to anything that comes your way. It also keeps you from thinking about a past failure or the expected glory if you succeed.
- Fear and Desire. These two emotions are axiomatic to military leaders. In business, the desire for success mixed with the fear of failure will keep you on track under pressure, particularly for entrepreneurs or leaders trying to take their division or company in a different direction.
The cadets at West Point listened to this part of my speech and nodded, particularly when I told them that no clutch leader was born that way: even generals had to learn to excel under pressure. They already recognize that these traits that can be taught.
What was more surprising — and heartening — was how well they seemed to understand the second part of my speech, about the three common personality flaws that surface under extreme pressure and cause people to choke. These include not taking responsibility for your actions, being overconfident, and over-thinking your role in a company or society.
Now, it’s one thing for a colonel who has commanded an 850-person battalion in combat to talk about navigating extreme situations; it’s a completely different thing for a 20-year-old cadet to grasp the concept of leading under pressure and have a sophisticated awareness of the pitfalls that trap those who fail.
Talking to some of the young men and women after the presentation, I realized that most of them have a better grasp on what being “clutch” means than many seasoned executives I’ve interviewed. This is good for the country, but not great for business.
Here are three things emerging private sector leaders can learn from the cadets:
- They are focused on a goal. When they graduate they will be deployed to lead a platoon, probably in Afghanistan or Iraq. They know the responsibilities and the risks. And everything they are doing is preparing them for that moment. Do you know what your primary mission is at work?
- They work in an organization that is continually striving to be better. When a mistake happens, the Army tries not to let it happen a second time. Are you aligned with the right organization? Or if you’re leading that organization, are you prepared to change things that aren’t working, even if change could be hard or even a reversal of something you implemented?
- They practice. These cadets are given the physical and mental training that will help them do their jobs at the highest level. They know you have to be able to perform a task perfectly under normal conditions before you can expect to do it in a stressful situation. Can you say the same thing? Are you able to do your job at a high level every day? If not, then you should not be surprised when you make the wrong decisions under pressure.
The good news is that, as the cadets show, the traits of clutch performers can be learned.
Paul Sullivan is a business columnist for The New York Times and the author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t (Portfolio, 2010)
See original article here.