Calm Under Pressure

“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.” C.J. Redwine

Dealing with Bad News

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

We had just landed a large order for a new product and we didn’t have the parts to build it. Our engineering manager was briefing the head of sales and me. He estimated it would take 10 weeks before we received the critical parts. The problem was that the customer needed the product next week.

Sales had worked hard to book this order. It was from a customer we had been pursuing for months. If we failed to deliver, we would likely lose this customer forever. The stakes couldn’t be higher. I was frustrated but I was trying not to show it. I asked a few questions to explore various options and then it happened, our sales manager lost his cool. He said, “this is totally unacceptable!” and he stormed off.

Even though I agreed with him, I stayed calm and continued to ask questions. I finally asked the engineering manager to send me the drawings so I could consider other options. Little did I know, I was exhibiting a leadership trait called temperance.

The Importance of Temperance

Plato defined temperance as “moderation in action, thought, or feeling; restraint.” Temperance is voluntary self-restraint from excessive anger or craving for something. It shows up in the form of calmness and self-control. It’s the idea of holding back on your natural reaction to circumstances. Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues and it is an important leadership trait. In fact, it probably saved the world.

In 1962, during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one Soviet Submarine Officer, Vasily Arkhipov, displayed the ultimate example of leadership temperance.

The Fog of War

Arkhipov was the second-in-command of the Soviet Foxtrot-class diesel submarine B-59 and the commander of the small submarine flotilla operating near Cuba. On October 27th, B-59 was detected by several U.S. Navy destroyers. As was the protocol at the time, the U.S. ships started dropping signaling depth charges to get the Soviet boat to come to the surface and identify themselves.

Since B-59 had been operating at a deep depth, they were out of radio contact with Moscow and unaware of the status of the standoff with the U.S. Navy. The commanding officer of B-59 assumed the war had begun and they were under attack. He began planning a counter-attack which would include launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at the U.S. fleet.

The Decision

Soviet procedures required three officers to approve the launch of a nuclear weapon. The commanding officer, the second-in-command, and the political officer all had to agree to launch the deadly weapon. Both the commanding officer and the political officer thought they were at war so they pressured Arkhipov to approve the launch of the nuclear torpedo.

The conditions in the boat were grim. B-59 had been submerged for far too long and the battery was losing power. The air conditioning had failed and it was close to 140 degrees in some areas on the boat. In the stale, stifling conditions on the sub, Arkhipov was faced with a tough decision. He could yield to the pressure and fire the torpedo which would likely lead to WWIII or he could maintain self-restraint and calmly think through the problem.

In an act of extreme temperance, Arkhipov calmly ordered B-59 to surface and establish radio contact with Moscow where they quickly learned they were not at war. Arkhipov’s calmness and self-control in the midst of dire circumstances likely saved the world from an all-out nuclear war.

Calm Under Pressure

As a leader, we are often faced with tough decisions and it’s easy to cave to peer pressure, get caught up in the moment, or become emotional. Our people, however, need us to be calm and exhibit temperance and self-restraint. We need to remain calm under pressure and make the right decisions for our organizations.

“Remaining calm in the midst of chaos is a superpower.” Clyde Lee Dennis

In my case, I was able to think through our parts shortage problem and, after talking with our manufacturing engineering manager, we developed a plan to rework some existing inventory to meet our needs. In the end, we would be able to produce the product and meet our customer’s needs.

You may never be called on to make a decision like Vasily Arkhipov but you will face many difficult situations where you will need to exhibit self-restraint. Temperance is an important leadership trait that allows us to remain calm, cool, and rational in the face of uncertain and chaotic circumstances. Temperate leadership is critical especially during times of uncertainty. People want a calm and steady hand on the rudder during a rough storm.

Practicing temperance can help you to be a better leader and, you never know, it might just save the world.

Learn more about how to be a more effective leader in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

The Mission-Minded Leader

It Starts with the Mission

Great leaders are mission-minded. They are also great communicators. They understand the importance of clear, concise, and continuous communications with their teams. These leaders know how critical it is to get everyone rowing in the same direction. They appreciate the significance of getting people to recognize and carry out the organization’s mission.

So, why do most leaders forget to talk about their mission? Why are most mission statements ignored?

The problem is that most mission statements are typically long, complicated, and boring. They are written by committees and end up sitting in binders on dusty shelves or in cheap frames in the company’s lobby. Few have ever read them and even fewer can recite them. They’re completely irrelevant to the day-to-day operation of the business.

Mission-minded leaders know that when everyone knows the mission, there is cadence. When no one knows the mission, there is chaos.

But what if there was a better way? What if there was a simple method to embed the organization’s mission in everyday discussions? What if there was an easy way to get everyone on the same page?

This can be done and it’s easier than you think. Let me give you an example.

An Unforgettable Mission Statement

More than 20 years ago, my wife was a first-year teacher working at a small public school in Georgia. She had an amazing principal who was leading that school. The school had a mission to maximize the instruction time for each student. He wanted teachers to teach and not conduct other school business. He found a simple way to communicate his mission and it took just four words. In every meeting and interaction with his teachers, he simply said, “get up and teach.”

If teachers found themselves grading homework or working on lesson plans when the students were in the classroom, he wanted his words to remind them of what to do. He wanted them to put down their pens, get up out of their chairs, and teach students. Four simple words, “get up and teach,” was all he needed to communicate the mission.

What’s interesting is that all these years later, my wife still has those words echoing in her ears. Anytime she sits down in the classroom and she’s doing something other than teaching, her former leader’s words come to her. If she’s grading a paper or doing some administrative work, she hears his words, “get up and teach,” so she does. She puts down her pen, gets up, and she teaches because she knows that’s really what she’s there to do. These four simple words have stood the test of time. A mission statement she will never forget.

A Mission to be Different

This is something I have adopted in my business.

I run a manufacturing company called Peak Demand Inc. which I co-founded in 2016. We started this company because we believed that customers were tired of the existing suppliers in the industry. Lead times were long, prices were high, customer support was poor, and the buying process was complex. We wanted to change that. This was our mission.

We chose four simple words to communicate that mission. I remind employees daily that we are a “different kind of supplier.” Our mission is to provide something to the market that they can’t get from the other guys.

For example, other suppliers take 4-6 weeks to ship their product, we do it in 24 hours. Other suppliers have complex buying processes but you can order our products online and pay with a credit card if needed. If anything goes wrong in the field, the other guys make it hard to get it resolved. We have people on the phone 24 hours a day with the goal of getting the problem fixed as quickly as possible.

We’re different. We’re customer-driven, friendly, and we make things easy. When an issue comes up with a customer, I want my words echoing in the ears of my employees. When they start thinking like a big company, I want my words to remind them. I want them to choose a solution that would be different from the rest of the industry. I want them to be a “different kind of supplier.” It’s a quick and simple way to remind everyone of what the mission of our company is.

Internalizing the Mission

Great leaders are mission-minded. They are also great communicators. To be more effective as a leader, you need to communicate your mission daily. To do this, all you need is a simple, easy-to-remember way, to remind your employees of what’s important. Think about my wife, more than 20 years later, she is still reminded of those four simple words, get up and teach.” She’s still following them today even though she’s no longer part of that leader’s organization.

Great leaders are mission-minded. 

Make your mission statement so simple and so effective that when your employees hear it, they get it. They internalize it. It becomes part of who they are. If you do that, you’re going to build a mission-driven organization and be a much more effective leader.

Can you communicate your mission in just four words? Will your team remember it 20 years from now?  Mission-minded leaders answer yes to both these questions.

Learn more about how to be a more effective leader in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

[Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III/Released]

It’s Good to be Liked but Even Better to be Respected

My first commanding officer in the Navy was a hard ass and it was one of the best learning experiences of my career.

Trial by Fire

When I first arrived on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee, I was a lowly Ensign, the lowest ranking officer in the Navy. Ensigns are affectionately called “butter bars” because they wear one gold bar on each of their collars. As a “butter bar” fresh out of submarine school, I had zero experience in submarine operations. I was young and clueless.

My commanding officer wasn’t. He was a Captain, an O-6, five ranks ahead of me in the Navy food chain and he was commanding submarines while I was still in high school. He was a rough man of few words and the words he did use were exactly what you would expect from a sailor at sea. He walked the boat with a scowl on his face just looking for something that was out of sorts. If you left a cup of coffee on a cabinet and it wasn’t “rigged for sea,” he would knock it to the ground just to make a point. It was not uncommon to get chewed out from him while you were standing watch for the smallest infraction.

High Expectations

He expected the best out of his crew, especially his officers. We typically bore the brunt of his tirades. I once witnessed him throw a spoon across the wardroom table because the soup that was being served was cold. He had high expectations and if your performance was not up to speed, he’d let you know. In truth, he was commanding a nuclear-powered submarine with 24 nuclear missiles in the middle of the Atlantic during the Cold War. The stakes were high and he made sure his crew was ready.

“I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” Julius Erving

As I learned my role and qualified for various watch stations on the boat, I noticed the crew had high expectations as well. They knew the Captain required the very best and they made sure to train young officers properly. It was not easy being held to such high standards but it made me work that much harder. When I finally qualified as Officer of the Deck, the officer in charge of the entire boat, I knew my stuff. I was tried and tested. I was good and I was surrounded by officers and sailors who were good as well.

The Results

The Tennessee proved its readiness time after time. Because of our commanding officer, we were able to effectively conduct all the missions we were assigned. We also became the best boat in the fleet. We received two Battle Efficiency Awards “Battle E’s,” a Navy Unit Commendation, and in 1993, we were awarded the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Ballistic Submarine of the Year.

I went from a young and clueless Ensign to an experienced and knowledgeable Lieutenant, qualified to stand every watch station on the boat. I learned the art of underwater combat from my Captain. I knew how to take the Tennessee to sea and to prepare her to launch missiles. I learned how to avoid detection and to hide in ocean currents and eddies. I learned navigation, engineering, and the full capabilities of our weapons. I also learned to love working for him.

“Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, [or] difficulty.” Theodore Roosevelt

Was my commanding officer warm and fuzzy? No. Was he overtly friendly? No. Did we all respect and admire him? Absolutely! Would we go to war with him? In a second.

To be fair, when the boat was in port and we were on R&R, the Captain was fun to be around. Once you had proven yourself to him, you became a part of his inner circle and he treated you with respect. We enjoyed many good times together when the boat wasn’t at sea.

The Lesson

The lesson for leaders is this, it’s good to be liked but it’s even better to be respected. Too often I see leaders trying to please everyone. They spend more time trying to be liked than focusing on the mission of the organization. If you read my articles, you know that I’m a big proponent of treating employees with respect but that never should be at the expense of the mission. If an employee is not performing to expectations, a leader needs to take action. Leadership is about motivating a group of people to complete a mission. If the mission is in jeopardy because of the actions of an employee, the leader needs to step in.

“It’s good to be liked but even better to be respected.”

We all had tremendous respect for our commanding officer. He was mission-focused and he pushed us all to be our best. My Captain taught me to keep my standards high and expect more from my team. He showed me that there is pride in completing difficult tasks and there is confidence when you are surrounded by competent peers. He pushed us hard but we each grew because of his direct leadership.

Ask yourself, are you trying to please your employees or are you focused on the mission? Are you pushing your team to be their best or are you accepting subpar performance?

Remember, it’s good to be liked as a leader but it’s even better to be respected.

Learn more about the leadership skills I learned in the Navy in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

[Photo credit – U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom]