Successfully leading a team or company through a severe and sudden crisis is not something that only so-called "born leaders" can do. More typically, it is accomplished by people willing to undergo a deliberate disciplined process, based on five principles.

So says Kevin Sweeney, a retired Air National Guard pilot and subsequent business leader who, with his crew, landed a catastrophically damaged air refueling tanker in Saudi Arabia at the outset of Operation Desert Storm. Today Sweeney coaches business owners, human resource executives and anyone else interested in how to develop what he calls "pressure cooker confidence" (also the title of a book he has written) to lead "when the heat is on."

Some leaders place great faith in the power of positive thinking. Sweeney does too, but also says, "I expect to have a problem." That expectation -- along with the confidence that you can overcome it, "prepares you to handle it and know it will be OK." In his book, he explains that pilots "all practice for that time when it seems that nothing is going right and everything is going wrong." While that's not typical training for other jobs, Sweeney says successful people must prepare for adversity.

Sweeney's reflection upon his remarkable personal experiences and success led him to identify five "principles for peak performance under pressure:" preparation, passion, focus, team and confidence.

While these individual concepts are familiar, embracing them collectively establishes a path to effective leadership under trying circumstances. Highlights of Sweeney's take on those principles, as outlined in his book (available here) follow.

Preparation. Though basic, it bears repeating in a time when tight schedules lead to the temptation to improvise, even for difficult tasks. The hard work done before a "pressure event" occurs, rather than the effort put forth during the event itself, is the key to success (and survival, in Sweeney's case). "If you haven't prepared beforehand, it is too late once the pressure is on," Sweeney insists. And it's not just a matter of knowing what specific steps to take in a given situation, since not every contingency can be planned for. It's also being psychologically ready for the unexpected, so that a clear head can prevail in resolving the issue.

Passion. It is easier to excel in pressure-cooker leadership roles if you have a passion for your work. Passion cannot be switched on and off, but a common unconscious pattern is to allow an original passion for one's job to dissipate. Passion must be cultivated and nurtured. "We have to let ourselves enjoy life with endorphin payoffs… Let yourself enjoy your job," Sweeney counsels. Take time to understand what your true passions are, and keep yourself open to new opportunities that could generate greater passion.

Focus. Solving a difficult problem requires that you "focus intensely on the right thing, at the right time, in the right order," Sweeney writes. But such focus is not instinctive for most people. It takes effort, aided by an awareness about whether you are indeed focusing on the issue at hand, or allowing your mind to drift to lower priority tasks or irrelevant matters. Improving one's capacity for sustained focus boils down to practice. "It's as simple as that," says Sweeney. Also, the fruits of focus are confidence that you will accomplish the goal, which makes doing so all the easier.

Team. Although Sweeney was the commanding officer of the flight crew on his fateful flight, the importance of teamwork was underscored by the fact that the plane could not safely land without each member's efforts. The lowest-ranking crew member played a vital role in ensuring their survival. "Prepare everyone on the team, even the lowest ranking member, to become the most important member at any given time," he advises. When you are recognized as a team leader who values every member's contributions, "people will fight to be on your team." Also, "Nobody on your team will say, 'It's not my job.'"

Confidence. For Sweeney, the foundation of confidence includes the knowledge that one has done the hard work of preparing to face challenges, and a willingness to recognize the reality of fear when it occurs -- but then the self-discipline to move ahead and deal with the situation at hand, no matter how dire. Confidence, like focus, can be lost, and must be nurtured on an ongoing basis through a variety of means.


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