I once got feedback from a member of my team that said I was often so calm that it didn’t seem like I understood the gravity of the situation.
At the time I had recently taken over ownership of the Group Financial Consolidation system. The system was new, the team were new, the processes and the governance were all new, everything was new.
The thing with running Group Consolidation is that if something goes wrong then you run the risk of either reporting late out to the City, or even worse, reporting inaccurately; either of which could potentially wipe millions, or tens of millions, off of the value of the company.
And things were going wrong, a lot.
So when I got that feedback, I took it as a complement.
There are very few things more damaging than panic. Not just in a crisis, but in any situation. Panic is destructive; it clouds minds, impairs decision making, slows reaction times. It is a disaster.
And it us contagious.
When a leader panics, the team panics; those around the team panic, it spreads like wildfire, and before you know what’s happening a perfectly controllable situation is completely out of control.
The situation isn’t improved with the distance that we are all experiencing, in fact, it is made much worse. People catching snatches of what is happening, feeling isolated and out of control already, are pre-disposed to panic, to reacting to a stimulus; an email or an IM, or a Teams message, they are already heightened.
In interviews for the role of running Group Consolidation I was asked a question about how I would react when things went wrong. I answered that question with a story, it’s a story I’ve told a number of times since, and one that perfectly sums up the point that I am trying to illustrate.
The story is of British Airways flight 2276.
BA2276 was taking off from Las Vegas Internaltional airport in September 2015 when the left engine failed. Having brought the aircraft to a stop, and while it was still on fire, the crew took the time to make sure they understood their situation before ordering the evacuation.
Despite the desperate and dangerous situation that they found themselves in they took the time to make sure that whatever actions they took didn’t make things worse, and everyone got out alive.
The story of BA2276 is one of a triumph of clear thinking, of calm over panic. It is the story of a flight crew who took the necessary time to respond to a situation, rather than react to it.
However this doesn’t apply directly to all of us. We are unlikely to find ourselves in the pilot seat of a burning aircraft, but we each face our own catastrophes, our own engine failures. We will each have to deal with disaster and misfortune, and we will each have to be ready to respond, rather than react, when it comes.
So how can we be ready? How can we put ourselves in a position where we don’t freak out? Where we don’t just react and make matters worse? How can we make sure we give ourselves the best chance of making the right choice when the time comes?
- Meditation – Meditation is one of those things that you have no idea is benefitting you, until it’s really obvious that it has.
When you start meditating, and for the first few weeks or even months, you will have no idea what it’s doing for you, you won’t see the benefit, you may feel a little calmer, but overall very little will change.
And then one day you’ll find yourself in a situation where it would be extremely easy to react, either angrily or defensively, and you’ll feel that tightness in your gut kick in as the adrenaline dumps; but rather than bite back, or shout, or get angry, you’ll find that you are able to take a breath, and build enough space to formulate a response.
On that day you’ll realise that meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, and is (our was) practiced by successful business leaders like Ray Dalio, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for a reason.
- Train – Build discipline through training. Stress your body and learn what it feels like.
The most profound change that I found through my exercise regimen was not physical, it was mental. I found that I was taking ownership for all of the good, and all of the bad. I was more confident and open, I felt able to handle more situations, I felt that I was able to think clearer under stress, and that I recovered faster than others. I found that I was able to block out more noise and more distraction than other people and zero in on that next rep.
And I found that I had the capability to switch off pain, and discomfort, and tiredness; and instead focus wholly on what was in front of me, what needed to be done to move forward.
I can take that practice, that muscle, and put it to use anywhere I like.
- Practice Stress – Find a stressful situation in a controlled environment, and put yourself in it.
A little over a year ago I discovered Toastmasters Internaltional, this offers an amazing opportunity for practicing public speaking, something that many people find horrifyingly stressful, in a safe development at environment with others who are feeling the same as you, and looking to develop as you are.
Most Toastmasters meetings also feature a “Table Topics”, where meeting attendees are invited to the front to speak off the cuff for 60 to 150 seconds on a subject that is given to them moments earlier. If you know of a better way to practice stressful situations I’d love to hear it.
Through these approaches we can teach ourselves to relax, to detach from a situation and look objectively at the options in front us, and understand what needs to be done to move ourselves forward, rather than getting ourselves trapped in a panic doom loop.
Detachment allows us to focus, focus allows us to move past reaction and into formulating a response, and responses allow us to move forward with such confidence and assertiveness that someone might think we don’t understand the gravity of the situation.