Leadership Qualities: 5 Strategies for Staying Smart Under Pressure

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Old BusNo matter how well trained you are, how great of skills you possess, how talented and vivacious you might be, if you choke under pressure, you’re done for.

Leaders have to stay smart under all kinds of pressure.

When I was in high school, I got bused out of district. That half hour ride to and from school each day was a cauldron of fist fights, firecracker explosions, and a thickĀ  haze of green smoke courtesy of the boys in the back row.

The biggest challenge on that bus was getting off of it since the aisles were perpetually blocked by 15 year old pugilists.The driver would shout out stops while barely coming to a rolling stop before quickly accelerating again, leaving precious little time to maneuver to the door.

To say that ride was high pressure for a delicate flower like myself is an understatement.

Yet, what I learned on that daily transportation ritual was that it isn’t enough to stay calm under pressure. You have to stay smart.

After missing my stop a couple of times, once in a downpour that forced me to walk an extra quarter of a mile home barefoot so I wouldn’t ruin my shoes in the rain, I finally did get smart about handling the pressure of that ride.

It’s exactly the same process I used as a corporate executive and it’s the same process I share with my consulting clients today.


Anytime you’re under pressure, right out of the gate you will start sizing up your ability to cope with it. If it’s not a true life or death situation, chances are you’re going to wonder whether you have the fortitude, the resources, or the skills to handle it. If the answer is yes, you find yourself calmly moving through the pressure.

If the answer is no, you get stupid really fast.

You see, it isn’t the pressure of the situation itself that stymies you. It’s your reaction to the situation…more specifically, how well you assess your ability to handle it in that moment.



Yes, the posters are right. You have to stay calm to stay smart. My best ‘keep calm’ technique is deep breath in through the nose and exhale out through the mouth. Slow, intentional breathing calms down your racing heart and let’s you start to think. There’s always a solution.


How are you thinking? What are your emotions? Be as aware of what’s going on with yourself as possible so you aren’t reacting strictly on autopilot.


Under pressure, we typically default to a very narrow way of problem solving. We only see the immediate situation and lose sight that the solution might be a just beyond our sight. Step back and see a bigger picture to look for possibilities not instantly obvious to you. Ask yourself how a colleague who thinks differently than you might solve the problem.


Whether you can only do it once because you’re under time pressure or you can do it several times over, the ability to practice walking through different scenarios in your head as if it were live action will uncover hidden pitfalls and give you the confidence that you will achieve success. This pseudo-experience also starts building up intuition and gut instinct closely mimicking the way real world experience aids in staying smart in high pressure situations.


Ask yourself, or have someone else drill you on, why your solution will fail. Going through challenges of what won’t work gets you closer and closer to knowing exactly what will work. And to having the confidence to stay calm and follow through with action.

How did I stay smart and get off that bus?

I knew I had the disadvantage of a blocked aisle so instead of going through the obstruction, I went over it. And in rehearsing in my head beforehand, I knew that a girl in a dress going over fighting boys was a potential critical glitch in my plan, I wore shorts under my dress everyday for the rest of the year.

I never missed my stop again.


To learn more about how you might react in high pressure situations, take the Deviant Advantage Leadership assessment now by clicking here http://www.thecoryellgroup.com/theDeviantAdvantage/

Sandi Coryell
Keynote Speaker and Leadership Consultant Sandi Coryell works with leaders who want to bring out the best in their teams and themselves so that they can improve their creativity, teamwork, and bottom line. For Speaking or Consulting inquiries, please contact Sandi at 818-288-3483 or email at sandicoryell@thecoryellgroup.com

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