5 Ways to Keep Your Cool, Even When You're Not Feeling It
The situation that was happening would have sent any leader who cared running for the aspirin bottle. I decided to jump in, asking Mark, our company's senior VP, "Are you okay? Are you stressed? What needs to happen next?"
Mark looked me over and calmly replied, "Karin, I don't get stressed; there's no use in that. But as it turns out, I'm a stress carrier."
Ha! I thought to myself. In humor lies the truth.
Mark had apparently mastered what I'll call "executive presence." This senior VP had nailed how to be excited but not excitable. And in my book, that was a worthy accomplishment. While he might be deeply passionate about the cause, nothing rattled him. He'd taken on each new scene as if he'd seen it a thousand times before.
His actions were values-based, consistent, deliberate and timely. And yet he knew that his calm words wouldn't always have a calming effect on his team. In fact, sometimes, the calmer he appeared, the wilder the vice presidents below him became -- as if they were making up for Mark's tendency to not be "excitable."
In short, the stress was rolling downhill through the organization, even though Mark had tried his best to stop it.
'Excited' energizes. 'Excitable' freaks people out.
In almost every company I've work with, I've noticed a consistent pattern: Things are remarkably calmer on the executive "floor." (Thank goodness, that doesn't always mean a real floor these days.)
And that's counter-intuitive, because the stakes are higher, the decisions graver, among the executive elite. After all, these folks have further to fall, yet when the going gets tough (for the execs who "get" it), the volume doesn't amplify.
Full disclosure: I didn't learn this rule until later in my career. For a long time, I believed that my excitable nature proved I cared; I confused stress with passion. But that's wrong: Being "fired up" is a long way from being "freaked out." That's why it's important to understand the difference, in both yourself and those you lead.
After all, your team members long for calm in you and in them. So, don't stop with yourself.
How to encourage 'excited' vs. 'excitable.'
The question to ask becomes: How do you grow leaders who emulate calm in the midst of a frantic context? Here are five ways.
1. Acknowledge reality.
More than anything, your team members need to know you "get" it, regardless of what "it" may be. Otherwise, they'll think your head is in the sand. When you calmly state the issue and its implications, I promise that your team will breathe a sigh of relief. They'll move from trying to prove that the fire is real, to trying to figure out how to extinguish it.
2. Stay consistently true to your values.
Great leaders stay true to their values when the going gets tough. If "customer service is #1" has been your rallying cry, and you start engaging in shortcuts when budget (or boss) pressures loom, you'll find that your team will be confused at best. So, don't change course. Instead, ask, how do we maintain our commitment to a great customer experience, given these new parameters?
3. Encourage wacky solutions.
Chances are that someone is sitting on an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Give that someone an opportunity to share. Then help calm him or her down, by asking great questions and considering how the idea could be best executed.
4. Use failure as a learning opportunity.
When the going gets tough, our tolerance for failures decreases, and in many well-intentioned leaders, that tolerance disappears altogether. Ironically, it's the toughest times when we need it most. Our 18th failure is going to be much harder than the second was. So, help your team stay calm. And keep learning.
5. Stay real.
When the going gets really tough, your team members will want the truth. Share what you can and help them to make informed decisions.
Leaders who win well are excited, but not excitable. They have a strong vision and sense of where they are headed. They expect disruption and leverage chaos as an opportunity to engage creative solutions.
So, stay excited. Resist excitable -- for both yourself and those who care enough to follow your lead.
(For more on excitable vs. excited watch this funny, yet true video about how to communicate during times of stress.)