You’ve likely experienced a feeling of overload at times, when information seems to be flying at you at a dizzying pace. There are a number of different priorities and tasks going on, and new information and issues requiring your attention seems to be cropping up faster than you can process them. The situation needs resolution, and you’re the one who has to get it done, now!
It’s at these times that some people seem to flourish, and others just freeze. It’s impressive when you see a leader who seems to be able to handle the stress, the multiple sources of information and interruption, and still focus on the most important things. Strangely enough, even those tasks that aren’t as important still seem to get done in the middle of the crisis. So how do they do it?
The reality is, those leaders that seem to have special powers, really don’t do anything you can’t do as well. Their trick is an ability to focus. So how do they know how to differentiate between important information, and background ‘noise?’ What qualifies as urgent and needing special attention, when everything seems to be that way?
One place to look for some ideas is in the cockpit of a jet airliner. Cocooned back in our comfortable, spacious seats (right!), we take for granted that the doors will be closed, we will climb into the air, and reach our destination safely. In fact, how hard could this be for the pilot as well? Don’t they have autopilot now? Surely all they do is program in a few coordinates, let the plane take off, and land itself, all while the pilot and co-pilot have some coffee and enjoy the view. Right?
Not exactly. Imagine the amount of information and feedback that’s being provided in the cockpit on a constant basis. There are alarms to listen for, gauges to watch, air space to keep an eye on, and inevitably, the potential for bad weather on the radar. If all of this wasn’t enough, there is a radio and a multitude of other planes and air traffic control talking to each of them on the same frequencies. How does a pilot keep an eye on all of the variables and still hear their plane’s tail number called out in the noise? How do you get a 250,000 pound piece of metal into the air safely? The trick is focus, and the lessons that pilots can teach us will make us all better leaders during stressful, high-stakes times in our work.
So, what do pilots know that we can learn from? There are 5 things you can do in times of stress and high intensity that will help you be a better leader.
- Limit distractions. This might seem obvious, but when a pilot is taking off and landing, the last thing they can afford is to be interrupted. Now is not the time to be carrying on a text conversation with their significant other about an argument last night or plans for the weekend. They have to limit anything that might interrupt their thought processes and attention. The same goes for you. Turn off Outlook, put the ringer on your phone on silent, and stop the text alerts. By limiting your distractions, you can more easily get ‘in the zone’ and make better, faster decisions.
- Know your priorities before crisis hits. A pilot is meticulous and goes through a checklist each and every time they take to the air. The checklist is there so they don’t forget something critical, but also so they can “forget” about the small things and keep their minds on the key tasks. If their mind is full of minutiae (what setting does the doohickey need to be turned to), they won’t be able to keep up with the key tasks that have to be done to take off safely. For you, make sure you focus on the big picture and are able to look up the details you need when it’s important. Having a good set of checklists, processes and procedures in place before the crisis hits will allow you to focus on the important stuff.
- Limit what you focus on. Carey Lohrenz, a former Navy Lieutenant and F-14 Fighter Pilot, says that 3 priorities is enough. In her words, “It cannot be 27 priorities. You will be an inch deep and a mile wide.” The same goes for you. When things are moving quickly and the pressure is on, it’s time to focus your attention on 2-3 things, and do them really well. The other things can wait, or can be delegated when the time is right. Once those priorities are tackled, pick the next 3 until the crisis is over.
- Think before you act. The old adage of ‘measure twice, cut once’ is a valuable one, even if you aren’t a carpenter. When stressful times hit, our tendency is to try and move as quickly as possible, in hopes that quick action will limit the amount of time the stress continues. We want to resolve the problem quickly, and get back to ‘normal.’ But that’s actually the worst thing you can do. It’s precisely at times of high stress that you need to slow down enough to make sure you check your work. Stress has the effect of causing your adrenal glands to release additional adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that, in elevated levels, serves your body by helping it obtain additional energy, reducing inflammation and controlling blood pressure. However, it’s close cousin, adrenaline, also gives you a boost of energy that is shown to sometimes cause a person to make rash, and risky decisions. Rash decisions can quickly lead to mistakes, thus creating even more stress and work to be done. Take your time and make good decisions.
- Get your rest. I can’t stress this one enough. There’s a reason that pilots, truckers and even Physician Resident students have limits on the number of hours they are allowed to work. These rules are in place to ensure that they get the amount of rest they need to operate safely during stressful times. Our bodies and minds simply function better when we’ve gotten the right amount of sleep, and we can make better, and faster decisions during times of stress. An article published by the Duke School of Medicine describes a 2011 study which found that people with insufficient sleep were more likely to make risky decisions, and lean toward optimistic outcomes and disregard potential negative consequences. In other words, people who were tired tended to think that ‘everything will be ok’ and disregarded the potential negative things that can happen. During times of high stress, you need to be able to see the whole picture, look for potential risks and make correct decisions. Limiting your sleep by pulling an ‘all-nighter’ may make you feel like a hero, but will likely make you look like a zero!
While stress is not something you can avoid, the way you react to it when it does come could make the difference between success and failure. If you can prepare for periods of stress ahead of time, you are more likely to come through on the other side in a better place. When you’re feeling the pressure, if you can remember the tricks that pilots know, you can be one of those leaders that has it all together.
Do you have any techniques for dealing with high stress situations that would help others? Share them with me.