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Learning from the Military: How to excel under pressure

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In October of 2010, Paul Sullivan from Harvard Business School addressed the cadets at West Point.  In the address, Sullivan delivered to these cadets what he discovered over years of research on studying people under pressure – what makes them successful and what causes them to collapse.   Sullivan found that people who excel under pressure share these five characteristics:

  1. Focus. This allows you to block out everything that distracts from your goal. It is not to be confused with concentration. Focus is a laser beam; concentration is merely a flashlight.
  2. Discipline. This allows you to stay the course under pressure and is always an internal battle.
  3. Adaptability. Colonel Thomas Kolditz describes this as “fighting the fight, not fighting the plan”. In other words, don’t let your ego stop you from abandoning the wrong course of action.
  4. Being Present. This helps you respond to anything that comes your way. It also keeps you from thinking about a past failure or the expected glory if you succeed.
  5. Fear and Desire. These two emotions are axiomatic to military leaders. In business, the desire for success mixed with the fear of failure will keep you on track under pressure, particularly for entrepreneurs or leaders trying to take their division or company in a different direction.

From Sullivan…

Now, it’s one thing for a colonel who has commanded an 850-person battalion in combat to talk about navigating extreme situations; it’s a completely different thing for a 20-year-old cadet to grasp the concept of leading under pressure and have a sophisticated awareness of the pitfalls that trap those who fail.

Talking to some of the young men and women after the presentation, I realized that most of them have a better grasp on what being “clutch” means than many seasoned executives I’ve interviewed. This is good for the country, but not great for business.

What the private sector can learn from cadets at West Point

  1. They are focused on a goal. When they graduate they will be deployed to lead a platoon, probably in Afghanistan or Iraq. They know the responsibilities and the risks. And everything they are doing is preparing them for that moment. Do you know what your primary mission is at work?
  2. They work in an organization that is continually striving to be better. When a mistake happens, the Army tries not to let it happen a second time. Are you aligned with the right organization? Or if you’re leading that organization, are you prepared to change things that aren’t working, even if change could be hard or even a reversal of something you implemented?
  3. They practice. These cadets are given the physical and mental training that will help them do their jobs at the highest level. They know you have to be able to perform a task perfectly under normal conditions before you can expect to do it in a stressful situation. Can you say the same thing? Are you able to do your job at a high level every day? If not, then you should not be surprised when you make the wrong decisions under pressure.

Sullivan says this

The good news is that, as the cadets show, the traits of clutch performers can be learned.

The Take – “Can be learned” is more subtle than you’d expect

One could ask themselves this question, “If these traits can be learned then why isn’t there a factory where we can create every different type of leader for each different industry with qualities in exect proportion as needed  for public and private sectors as needed, on demand, in the quantity that is needed in the timeframe they are needed?

The above capability does not exist as a commodity.  If it did, executives could not demand the compensation packages that they now receive ( ) as a product and result of the scarcity of these folks in the general population.

Let’s refine “the traits of clutch performers can be learned”.  Yes, they can be taught, if and only if there is a highly refined process to select people to whom these traits can be taught.  And sure, cadets at West Point can be taught these traits of how to excel under pressure.  But, is there a more highly selective admissions process than that of West Point?

Here is what could be said of West Point, Harvard Business School as well as top-tier business schools and Military Schools  where there is an exceedingly impressive track record of success of the schools graduates. 

  1. Find the people who will clearly achieve great things no matter what
  2. Accept them into the school
  3. Take credit for their inevitable success

There is also the Noah’s Ark theory of admission at Harvard Business School … The admission process admits a precisely calculated percentage of former consultants, investment bankers, armed forces veterans, men, women, ethnic minorities, international students, and a small handful of people with quirky unusual backgrounds.  With an admission strategy like this, how could you go wrong?

So, the bottom line is this.  Sure, as Sullivan says, how to excel under pressure can be taught.  But, only if those candidates that you try to teach it to already have the potential to learn – they have been pre-selected to succeed.  So what’s the magic in the teaching?

But, to say that “how to excel under pressure can be taught” or leadership in general can be taught as a truism in the setting of the general population could  only be demonstrated if those that hold such opinions could transform, in a repeatable way,  the likes of Moe Larry, and Curly into great military leaders or great corporate executives.

It’s more about the process of selecting high potential candidates than it is about the quality of the training or the general assertion that leadership can be taught.  This is why the admission process for West Point, Harvard, and any top-tier school is as refined as it is.  They pick people who will succeed – inevitably – no matter what.


Be, Know,Do: Forming character the West Point Way

Written by frrl

November 1, 2010 at 12:55 am

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