Skip to main content

Leading Under Pressure – An Example of Good Leadership

I once had a good illustration of leading under pressure.

The Story

I met a friend at a restaurant for breakfast. The place was normally busy and this seemed like a typical day from the many times I had frequented this restaurant. What was unusual was a new manager I had not seen before. And she was in full stress mode.

Apparently, several of her employees hadn’t shown up for work that day. (And I really don’t have to say apparently, because she made that quite clear as she complained rather loudly about her absent team members throughout our visit.)

Suddenly the place was swamped, which again was not unusual. The young girl running the cash register was overwhelmed. She had to ask for help several times. (However, she was likely sorry she did after the reaction she received.) She made a few little mistakes and seemed to make more mistakes the more agitated her boss became with her. This new manager continually “barked” back half answers, displayed constant frustration, and grumbled excuses about the lack of manpower. She never apologized and only complained.

Our server also became agitated, which was totally out of character for her. She had waited on me a number of times and was always pleasant, but the attitude of the restaurant was changing from anything I had previously experienced. Several customers displayed equal frustrations as tensions in the restaurant grew.

The only difference on this day than any other day I had been to this restaurant – a new manager. A new frustrated manager.

My friend and I wondered how we could best help. I thought maybe I could start cleaning some tables but, honestly, I was afraid of this manager. So, we stayed, tried to be nice and patient, but leaving almost seemed the more helpful option.

In fairness, I know firsthand the pressure of leading under stress. I’ve been there so many times where it seems everything is going wrong at the same time. Honestly, however, from an outside perspective, the employee on the cash register would have made less mistakes, servers would have been kinder, customers would have been less tense and the overall environment would have improved – had the new “boss” simply led through the moment rather than overreacted in it.

It reminded me of an important leadership principle.

The way a leader reacts under pressure determines how a team reacts under pressure.

I realize that appears to be a harsh assessment of the situation and of this manager, but it is based on years of leading through times of chaos. In fact, most of what I have learned came from a very difficult and very long season of poor leadership on my part as a small business owner. We were experiencing pressures from all sides and, as the owner, I didn’t respond like I should. Reflecting back now I realize it was impacting all of our employees.

I have often observed that leaders (including me) often default to a bad side of our leadership when pressures come. We sulk, complain, panic, and worry. In the end, we checkout from leading. Yet the role of a leader in times of stress may be more important than when times are good.

We have to discipline ourselves around it.

If the leader remains calm under pressure. Keeps smiling. Pushes forward the best he or she can – the team will more likely remain calm. If we keep an attitude of “we can do this” and lean into the problem rather than run from it or react poorly to it – the best we can at the time – our team will likely dig in and help us overcome the difficult moment or season.

But the opposite is also true.

If the leader panics everyone panics.

Leading in good times is easy (easier). Yet, part of leading is to step back from the stress long enough to chart healthier ways for our team. (This manager likely needed to push through the day, go home and rest that night, and start the next day with a fresh attitude and maybe a new plan.)

When the world is stretched – when we are under-staffed, under-funded, overwhelmed, that’s when we most need leadership to help us wade through the day.

Check out my leadership podcast where we discuss leadership nuggets in a practical way. Plus, check out the other Lifeway Leadership Podcasts.

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

More posts by Ron Edmondson

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Jim Pemberton says:

    I don't like that kind of pressure, but I do like a challenge and we're all going to have that kind of pressure anyway. Just reading this account I was chomping at the bit to get in there and lead the team. In some respects I do exactly the same thing in the factory. I'm not the supervisor, but I'm the person the associates come to when they need something and it's often because we are under pressure to complete certain orders by a certain time. So I set priorities for the plant and give them what they need to fulfill those priorities. Often, that comes with a positive outlook because that positive outlook goes a long way to keeping people going in a positive direction most efficiently.

    In this restaurant, I don't know what particular duties the manager has, but I might start with the most stressed associate, give some positive priorities and a quick word of encouragement or general direction: "Do these things first and worry about these other things later. Take the time you need to do it right and we'll get through this just fine." I'd go through each associate like this, especially team leaders, then since this is strongly driven by the presence of customers, I'd check on the customers personally to let them know they aren't forgotten about and that the team is working, "and is there something I can get for you while you wait?" Handling customer demands takes some of the pressure off the team so that they can more efficiently get things done. And "efficiently" means "quickly" because panicked "hurrying" results in inefficiencies that actually slows things down and lowers quality. Afterwards, I would commend the team for their hard work during a stressful time. That goes a long way to instilling confidence for future difficulties.