All leaders face pressure. It goes with the job. Effective leaders find ways to focus pressure when it serves their purpose and diffuse pressure when it doesn’t serve their purpose.
Get it wrong and a leader will compound a difficult situation.
Get it right and a leader can help his or her entire team make a difficult situation look easy.
Focusing attention takes discipline and, well, focus.
Diffusing attention takes more subtle communication skills.
Avoiding the obvious
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter knows his team faces pressure. Down four games in their division with 12 games left to play, every game becomes must win. He knows that. His players know that. At one point in his press conference Showalter even said, “They (the players) know what’s at stake. It doesn’t do me any good to dwell on the obvious and insult their intelligence.”
Diffuse, don’t diminish
Since he’s comfortable as a leader that his players are dialed in, drawing more attention to the pressure won’t serve a positive purpose. So he diffuses the pressure.
Prior to the O’s must-win game against Boston on Tuesday, Showalter walked into his daily pre-game press conference to find a room slightly on edge, a room filled with reporters anticipating Showalter feeling pressure for obvious reasons.
Bright lights call for composure
As he sat down in front of the cameras and reporters, Showalter commented on the bright TV lights in the room and linked them to his days as a TV analyst on ESPN. “Have any of you ever had to wear makeup?” Showalter asked of a room filled with reporters.
Several people–including me, nodded. What can I say, occupational hazard.
“Have you ever forgotten you had it on when you went to bed?” Showalter asked. More nods, this time with a few chuckles mixed in. Keep in mind this was a room filled mostly with men–talking about makeup. Awkward. But playful.
Then Showalter said, “I did that once and when I woke up I looked at the pillow and thought I had bled to death!”
It broke the room up. Showalter had delivered a line worthy of Yogi Berra. I woke up and thought I had bled to death.
It completely disarmed the room. He diffused the pressure of the room before the press conference even began.
The secret of effective leaders
Effective leaders know this secret. Pressure isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a thing.
Knowing how to use it is what makes all the difference.
Showalter didn’t just randomly start talking about makeup. Sure, he made it seem that way. That’s what effective leaders do. I’ve watched Buck work a room over the years. He knows how to gauge the pressure and either increase it or diffuse it–without making either look obvious.
Leaders impact culture first
Now you can make a case that Showalter’s approach didn’t work. After all, the Orioles lost the series to the Red Sox with a chance of being swept tonight. But I’ll counter that a leader impacts a culture directly, outcomes indirectly. Showalter doesn’t pitch and hit and field any more than you or the leaders of your organization do all of the front line work either. A leader influences culture first. A strong, healthy culture has a far better chance of producing winning outcomes. But in any business from baseball to construction outcomes are always easier to consider after the fact.
Art, not science
Some times leaders have to use pressure to focus attention. Some times they have to diffuse pressure by diverting attention. Knowing when to do it and how to do it are more art than science, but the art comes down to this: You focus attention directly; you diffuse attention indirectly. And when you do both seamlessly you can use almost anything to help you achieve your aim–even makeup.