Leadership Under Pressure

Leadership Under Pressure: One of the most useful things I have learned is how simple  everything becomes when things quiet down. In the middle of a  crisis, it is easy for me to forget that I make the best decisions  when my mind is not participating in the crisis.

Some people use crisis as a management tool.  Everything is serious. Everything is urgent. They shake everybody up.

Vince Lombardi (Green Bay Packers), everybody’s favorite “best ever” football coach, was well-known for public sideline tirades. Nothing was ever good enough. No one ever performed up to his level of expectation. He did this with everyone except Bart Starr, because Starr took it on himself to explain to Lombardi that Lombardi could say whatever he wanted to say to Starr behind close doors, but if Starr was going to be Lombardi’s field General, on the field Lombardi had to treat Starr the way Lombardi wanted the other players to see Starr, the field General, and to allow Starr to have the presence of mind to think like a General.

John Madden (Oakland Raiders) has talked about the importance of knowing when to use crisis management and which people to manage that way. Some people you light a fire under. You create a do-or-die, now-or-never sense of urgency.  Other players you do not even strike matches when they are in the area.  They can combust.  They can become intense, but they mentally leave the game.

Psychologist George Pranksy has talked about a higher plane of thinking, a focus or intensity when an athlete has no single thoughts of the coach, the stadium, the crowd, or anything.  The person is in the flow of the game and is not so much thinking as mentally moving through the experience of a physically flowing event. When someone calls time out, the player’s thoughts will move with the flow of the events of the time out.

To me, Bill Walsh (Forty Niners), in his v-neck sweaters, looked more like a consultant on a golf course than a coach when he spoke with Joe Montana on the sidelines.

There is a saying, “So goes the captain, so goes the wardroom, so goes the ship.”  Joe Montana was known for winning by being in the present moment and staying calm at the moment of intense pressure.  Playing for Bill Walsh no doubt made it easier for Montana to be the player who was called, “Joe Cool” or “The Comeback Kid.”

Down 16-13 in the 1989 Super Bowl, the Niners were on their own eight yard line with less than 3 minutes to play. There was a time out.  The Niners offense was in a loose huddle on the field.  Out of the blue, Joe Montana makes a comment of comic relief in a moment of intense pressure.  He points out to the other players that John Candy is standing near an exit watching the game.  Sure enough, comic actor John Candy was right there. When played resumed, the Niners went from their 8 yard line on down the field to score and win the game.

Montana had to have known the importance of what he had to do in the next 3 minutes.  He was playing in the Super Bowl. His team was behind in the score. He was in terrible field position.  Yet at the exact moment when he saw John Candy, the team was in a time-out and Montana at that exact moment was mentally present to comment on the physical flow of the moment.

Walsh said that Montana was the best quarterback he ever saw at finding the open receiver.  In a similar sense, I suppose that I am much better at finding my wallet when I clear my mind before looking for it.

The best boss I ever had was a man named S.R. Foley, Jr. He was my commanding officer on the USS Midway.  I was a junior officer who stood bridge watches at the time. For me, managing a team of bridge personnel for the safe navigation of an airport at sea could fill my mind to overflow in a hurry.

This particular Captain always spoke softly. I never heard him raise his voice.

He was a big guy and easily could have been intimidating, but he never used intimidation to get his job done. Yet he controlled the people and space around him.

Earlier in his career he had been a Navy fighter pilot. He had had shoot outs with Mig fighter pilots. After commanding the Midway, he went on to become a full Admiral, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Here is a summary of his experience:

Admiral Sylvester “Bob” Foley Jr., USN (Ret.), Summary of Responsibilities

  1. Vice President Laboratory Management, University of California, managed 12,000 people and a $5 billion annual budget for the national laboratories at Berkeley, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore.  Reported to the president of the University of California
  2. President of Raytheon, Japan, grew the annual business to more than $400 million, received Japan’s highest honor, the Order of the Rising Sun
  3. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs, appointed by President Ronald Reagan
  4. Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Promoted to 4-star Admiral,
    Recipient of three distinguished service medals and the Legion of Merit

Source: United States Naval Academy Alumni Biographies, http://www.usna.com/page.aspx?pid=464

I worked with this Captain every day for a year. The following example is just one instance of how he approached managing people.

Among other duties, I wrote the Midway’s press releases and sent them into U.S. Central Command during the Vietnam War. I was on the bridge when the message came in that “Midway’s press releases were consistently disappointing and useless.” The ship’s Executive Officer was the ship’s number two in command and was four ranks above me. He saw the message first and brought it up to the bridge to discuss it with me in front of the Captain.

To me this situation was very serious.  A person who is second in command of an aircraft does not climb several stories of ship’s ladders so that he can hand deliver a routine message to a junior officer in the presence of the commanding officer. I was in mental meltdown.

The Captain read the message in a glance.  He said, “I see what they want us to do. They need the press releases by noon every day.” His mind moved right past the inflammatory pieces and on to the issue of what needed to be done.

He asked if I could get the press releases to U.S. Central Command by noon.  I said, “Yes, Captain” and made sure that I did.

A couple of weeks later, the Captain called me over to his chair on the bridge. He handed me a second message from the person who had sent the nasty message. This time the message read, “Midway’s press releases consistently lead the fleet in excellence and receive widespread publication among the wire services.”

Why did the Midway’s press releases go from “useless” to leading the fleet in excellence? With all the inflammatory comments in the first message, it was hard for me to see past the crisis created in the message and on to what the message writer wanted.

Yet I was fortunate enough to be working for a person who did not let his mind become part of the crisis.  He spoke softly, thought clearly, solved problems, and gave simple clear direction.

So, I wonder, when does the crisis start?  For some people, it never does.


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