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Those of you who follow my blog know I enjoy sports analogies. I credit sports (specifically swimming, basketball, and track) in helping me gain the confidence and leadership skills needed to overcome the many challenges I faced during my 40 years in the US Coast Guard.  

A few weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers met in Las Vegas, NV to play Superbowl LVIII. The Superbowl is supposed to be exciting, and there was much ado about the prospects of the Chiefs given the incredible skill of their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. My husband, Bob, and I watched with eager anticipation, hoping for an exciting game. During the first half, seeing the Chiefs down 10-0, the game was so boring I almost gave up watching. But, as a Kellogg Business School graduate, the half-time ads appealed to my marketing instincts, so I kept watching. Thank goodness! 

What is Greatness?
The last few minutes of the game, in overtime, were well worth the wait. Although I was rooting for the 49ers, I watched in reluctant admiration as Mahomes magically completed pass after pass after pass to move the ball down the field in the final moments of the game. Behind 22-19, he hit an open receiver to clinch the win with a thrilling touchdown. 

Watching the game and then reading sports columns in the following days, I thought about what it is that makes Mahomes great. Is it his incredible skill, his uncanny ability to fake out the defense, or is it just that he has a good team? Truth be told, the team wasn’t reliably good and consistent this season. Some of the best players were traded away over the past couple of years, with the Chiefs earning the dubious distinction of leading the league in dropped passes. No, there’s something else about Mahomes that makes him great—clarity under pressure. 

Embracing Uncertainty
While watching Mahomes during the height of tension at the superbowl, when the Braves were down and looking like potential losers, I remarked to my husband, Bob, how Mahomes was sitting on the bench with the slightest hint of a smile turning up his lips. Like he knew a secret. Like he knew the Braves were going to win. And sure enough, when he took the field with the offense, he drove the team to victory as only he could. Clarity under pressure. Bob later told me if I wanted to better understand Mahomes, to look up the old Russian poem, The Sail, by Mikhail Lermontov. He was right; it offers insights into an elusive element of the nature of mankind. Since I’m a poetry fan, I’ll share the poem here, with the last two lines emphasized: 

The Sail  

White sail out in the bay
billowing in the wind.
Why sail so far away?
Why leave so much behind?

Winds must play on the seas
and masts creak in the wind.
Fortune is not what he seeks,
nor what he’s left behind.

A golden light still pours
down onto deep blue seas;
this rebel, alas, seeks storms,
as if in storms lies peace. 

Perhaps Mahomes is a man who seeks the storm and thrives under stress because in the storm he finds peace, or clarity under pressure. Leaders often find themselves amidst stormy, turbulent seas. Change and uncertainty are inevitable in the volatile world in which we live and work. To succeed, we’d do well to take a page from Patrick Mahomes’ playbook, and condition ourselves to find clarity under pressure. A leader who can find that elusive virtue will earn his or her teammates’ trust and will build the confidence necessary to win. 

The Four A’s for Preparation
So, how do leaders find clarity under pressure? One could write an essay on the topic. And it’s not in the least bit easy. But I believe at heart, it’s about being prepared with the proper mental mindset. I’ll share a simple framework that may prove a useful resource in conditioning one’s mind. I call it the “Four A’s for Preparation”: Anticipate, Adjust, Adapt, and be Agile. 

  • Anticipate: Conduct environmental scans and make strategic planning part of the leadership process 
    • What will your customers need in the next few years? 
    • What will be the challenges and opportunities
  • Adapt: Be not just willing but eager to embrace change to meet emerging needs
  • Adjust 
    • Help people understand the need for change 
    • Set expectations  
    • Hold people accountable for supporting the change 
  • Be Agile 
    • Reach high and accept some risk to stay ahead of new developments 
    • Push decision-making down to the lowest reasonable level to encourage participation and instill a sense of value and inclusion 
    • Encourage innovation by making it clear that failure is part of the process 

To succeed under pressure, leaders must establish a continuum of anticipating, adapting, adjusting, and acting with agility.  

Look in the mirror: How can you become a leader who embodies clarity under pressure? 

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character. 

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