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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

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Written by frrl

November 1, 2010 at 12:55 am

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