Here is an article written by Sean Silverthorne for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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In the sports world, a “clutch” player performs best when the pressure is on, backs are to the wall, and all eyes turned their way. Think Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Martina Navratilova. When it was all on the line, they not only didn’t wilt, they got better.
Is there such a thing as a clutch leader? Do you know managers or CEOs who rise above when everything is on the line? A bigger question: Can you learn to be clutch?
The latest issue of Harvard Business Review is spun around the topic of military leadership, and there is an interesting blog post on HBR.org about how military cadets learn what it takes to be clutch.
New York Times business writer Paul Sullivan, author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t recounts a talk he gave at West Point on the subject.
All clutch leaders display five traits, he said: focus, discipline, adaptability, being present, and fear and desire.
Read his post for more depth on each of these.
Sullivan’s good news for the rest of us is that organizations can train their performers to respond well to pressure. Sullivan says there are three lessons business leaders can learn from cadets:
1. 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. Continuous improvement. “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. Practice for success. “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.”
Will following this advice make you the Michael Jordan of your business? Well, maybe not–some people are just hard-coded for success in tough situations. But working at focusing on the objective, adaptability to the environment and improvement of skills sure puts whatever natural abilities you have in the best position to succeed when the going gets tough.
Looking through history, who were the greatest clutch leaders? Churchill? Lincoln? Alexander the Great?
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I would add Elizabeth I, Nelson Mandela, and Harry Truman.
Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001. Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily‘s first journalist based in Silicon Valley.