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Thrive on Pressure

By May 26, 2010Article

The rapidly evolving technologies and business models impacting the industry make running a software business incredibly challenging – not to mention tremendously stressful for its top executives. A new book by Dr. Graham Jones, Thrive on Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough, outlines the opportunities inherent in pressure situations. This excerpt outlines four skills of mental toughness that enable executives to perform at consistently high levels and remain cool, calm, collected and in control – even in the worst of situations.

Where does pressure come from?

My work with real leaders at the core of mergers, acquisitions, redundancies, management buyouts, and companies going public has equipped me with a fascinating insight into the enormous pressure that can make or break them. These are the situations in which leaders struggle and sometimes fold under pressure — or thrive on it. As a real leader, whether it be major events or the incessant daily demands of creating and maintaining an environment where high-level performance is inevitable and sustainable, pressure surrounds you and sometimes consumes you.

The pressure that comes with being a real leader is understood most simply in the context of the relationship between yourself and the environment in which you lead.

The environment

The environment is where the most obvious and common sources of pressure exist. These are the pressures imposed on you, such as delivering short-term results, building a strategy for growth, making the tough decisions that come your way, direct reports’ demands on your time, uncertainty, and constant change. Externally imposed pressures like these are often accepted as “part of the territory,” and will increase as you climb the corporate ladder. Indeed, research has shown that job promotions increase pressure on average by 10 percent.

External pressure for real leaders comes in two forms. The first stems from those demands that are highly visible within the organization, such as delivering the expected growth and profit numbers and reporting them at stakeholder meetings, delivering impactful presentations, and inspiring people with a compelling vision. The second form of external pressure arises from those less visible, more “localized” day-to-day demands that are expected of real leaders. Examples include making time for individuals, carrying out performance reviews, and leading by example.


There is another source of pressure that is not quite so obvious – yourself! Much of the pressure you experience in the workplace will come from others’ expectations of you, but this is often exacerbated by heaping even greater expectations on yourself. Self-imposed pressure comes in two forms:

1. Pressure that you actively seek in the external environment. Many people seek pressures that make their day-to-day existence more interesting and challenging.

These will vary enormously among leaders but can include setting yourself stretching goals, aspiring to the next promotion, studying part time for that next qualification, etc. Pressure in this form results from choices you have made about how you want to lead and the type of leader you want to be.

Your choice to be a real rather than a safe leader is made in the knowledge that you will be highly visible and is, therefore, something you impose on yourself. And in this role, you will probably want to exceed the organization’s and colleagues’ expectations of you. Because these are your expectations of yourself and do not originate from the external environment, you are imposing pressure on yourself. And simple things such as saying “yes” to everyone’s requests of you will ensure that self-imposed pressure mounts. Do not blame the people making the requests for the increased pressure on you and your time — blame yourself!

2. Unfortunately, you seldom seem to have control over the second type of self-imposed pressure. It is that cunning form that occupies your head. This is the potential monster that plays games with your mind and creates pressure when it should not exist. It taunts your conscience and distorts your perceptions. It sees problems when there are none. It turns small challenges into big issues. It creates enormous expectations of yourself that others do not have.

It focuses your attention on the one member of your team who looks disinterested in your presentation rather than on the remaining nine who are totally engaged. It may challenge your conscience that you made a mistake in deciding to let that underperformer go. Worse still, it may cause you to want to prove yourself to those small few who you have assumed do not respect you as a leader because they have never actually told you they are happy with your leadership.

Whatever its source, pressure can bring out the best and the worst in all of us. At its worst, it makes being a leader miserable and stressful. At its best, pressure enriches your existence as a leader, making it fulfilling and meaningful, inspiring you to higher, and even extraordinary, levels of performance. How pressure affects you is largely your own choice. It may not seem like it sometimes, but you do not have to be stressed and debilitated by pressure. In fact, you can positively thrive on it through being mentally tough.

The benefits of mental toughness

Mental toughness enables real leaders to thrive on pressure.

In today’s fast moving, highly competitive world, it takes more than ability, experience and education to get ahead. Now, it is mental toughness that will determine who succeeds and who fails. Mental toughness helps you to:

  • Bounce back after setbacks
  • Maintain belief in yourself when doubts are gnawing away at you
  • Remain focused in the face of numerous distractions
  • Keep going when all seems lost
  • Turn threats into opportunities
  • Find ways of motivating yourself when you are struggling to keep going
  • Harness thoughts and feelings so they work for you rather than against you
  • Make choices when there appear to be none available
  • Remain in control

The good news is that mental toughness can be developed so that you, too, can learn to cope with and actually thrive on pressure.

The four key skills of mental toughness

The portrayal of mental toughness was originally generated from studies carried out by Professor Sheldon Hanton, Dr. Declan Connaughton and myself. These studies involved asking elite athletes about their own mental toughness and how it manifested in other elite athletes whom they considered to be particularly mentally tough.

The athletes defined mental toughness as the ability to perform at consistently high levels in pressure situations. These findings have been replicated in our follow-up studies of high performers from different industry sectors in the business world. For example, high-performing equity traders in a large global bank defined mental toughness as “the ability to perform at consistently high levels through times of personal and professional pressure.”

In another study, a group of high-performing salespeople in a market research company defined mental toughness as “the ability to respond positively to multiple and sometimes conflicting pressures and deliver consistently successful performance.”

These studies show unequivocally that mental toughness is about performing to consistently high levels when under pressure, and it is the same in sports and business. The studies also show that mental toughness is underpinned by the ability to control stress, motivation, self-belief, and focus when under pressure.

So mental toughness is comprised of four key skills that real leaders are able to instantly identify with as enabling them to sustain high levels of performance in their pressured environments. My experience of working, originally with elite athletes, and more recently with real leaders has enabled me to pinpoint the key essentials of employing these skills successfully.

Specifically, these skills can be used to stay in control under stress, strengthen your self-belief, channel your motivation to work for you, and direct your focus to the things that really matter. They can be thought of as follows:

  • Staying in control under stress. This skill is important when the pressures of being a real leader become so overwhelming they spill over to cause stress, that negative and potentially debilitating state. This skill enables you to control the amount and nature of the stress you are under so that you can remain composed when you are weighing up situations and making important decisions.
  • Strengthening your self-belief. The high visibility and accountability associated with being a real leader, particularly during challenging times, may make you feel vulnerable. This skill strengthens your belief and confidence in your qualities and abilities as a real leader in order to take on the challenges ahead.
  • Channeling your motivation to work for you. This skill ensures that your determination to succeed as a real leader is founded on positive and constructive motives that keep you optimally motivated and enable you to recover from setbacks and failures.
  • Directing your focus to the things that really matter. As a real leader, there will be a multitude of demands on your time and energy that are a potential source of distraction. This skill enables you to identify your key priorities and responsibilities and then stay focused on them.

The sales force study I referred to earlier compared people who were formally classified as “high performers” in the organization with peers who were classified as “average performers.” The “high performers” scored higher on all four of the mental toughness key skills than their peers, showing that they really do make a difference in delivering sustainable high performance.

Read more from Thrive on Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough.

Graham Jones, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the author of Thrive on Pressure. For more than 20 years he has worked with people from all walks of life, helping them reach their high-performance levels. He is the founder of Lane4, a leading international performance development consultancy with offices in the United States, England, and Asia. Jones lives in Princeton, NJ.