The world is experiencing change at an exponentially increasing rate. It’s creating situations where leaders in every industry and every environment are under increasing pressure to perform. Pressure clearly affects our ability to work effectively. But it would be a mistake to think that pressure only affects us in a negative way. In fact, pressure is key to maximising the performance of some of the world’s greatest leaders.

How do you respond to pressure? Does it make you or break you?

In his book Antifragile Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that some things are better when they are treated roughly, the opposite of handle with care. He unpacks quite convincingly that we need pressure and stress.



 

World class performers in any field have already responded to the pressure of their environment and expectations by stepping things up. They have developed their capacity to tolerate stress and have turned that pressure into drive. This is the road less travelled.

Most people reach a degree of personal comfort and don't stretch the edges of what’s possible. They reject the pressure. They decide that this is as fit as they will be, or that's the hours they will work, that's the way they will work and they don't change things up or take things to the next level. They plateau. They listen to music from when they were young and sexy and simply don't move on. It’s more comfortable that way.

World class performers have developed their capacity to tolerate stress and have turned that pressure into drive.

Essentially, they’re settling where they are to avoid pressure, rather than seeing the pressure as a necessary part of the journey to self-actualisation.

What are our needs, and how are we motivated to fulfill them? Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behaviour. Once that level is fulfilled we become motivated by the next level up, and so on.

 
Maslow
 

Looking through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can see our needs have changed. Eighty years ago the most pressing need was to fulfil basic survival drives. Our responses to pressure were built around fulfilling our biological and physiological needs, and our safety needs. We needed to make sure we had somewhere dry and safe to live. We needed to make sure we had enough food and water. Now, in the culture we live in, we have almost unlimited access to food, resources, and shelter. These needs have been fulfilled. Obviously, we still need to eat and sleep and look after our safety, but the pressure upon us to do these things is light, and easily relieved.

Maslow noted only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualised because our society rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs.

We need to recognise that the pressure we feel in our day to day lives is simply an expression of an internal drive to fulfil the next level of needs. Once we make this decision, we’re able to see the pressure as a cue to solve or achieve a missing need. This is a much more appropriate response to pressure! Pressure is an incentive to do things, to go and solve a problem. Realise that, and get to work!

Pressure is an incentive to do things, to go and solve a problem. Realise that, and get to work!

Life is a series of moments, or inflection points. Moments when you get to decide what you will do with a curve ball or how you will choose to respond to a given set of circumstances. Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association, famously said “Life is a grind stone, whether it wears you down or polishes you up is up to you.”

 

Top performers grow their capacity to handle pressure, under performers simply don't. In Carol Dweck's book Mindset she unpacks the fixed versus growth mindset. A fixed mindset means a belief that intelligence (or any other cognitive capability) is set at birth. A growth mindset implies a belief that these things can change if given attention and effort. Focus on a child's results, good or bad, and the kid forms fixed opinions about whether they are any good at something. Focus on the effort the kid put in and you have the chance to develop a kid who will have a go at anything.

 

While we don’t specifically aim to manage the emotions of everyone in the program — that’s the job of great programs such as Landmark — we do recognise the frames of reference people experience when put under the pump. The better that thought leaders are able to process their own pressure, the better their lives and practices will be.

 
transformation
 

The vertical axis, Affirmation–Transformation, represents intent. If you’re below the line you’re seeking reassurance. If you’re above the line you’re seeking to make improvements.

The horizontal axis, Inspiration–Implementation, covers the spectrum from consuming to creating. If you’re on the left side then you’re seeking ideas. If you’re on the right you’re seeking progress. The left is think, right is do.

Everybody lives in every quadrant of the model at various points in their life. But for those of us seeking productivity, our goal should always be to move up, and to the right.

The better that thought leaders are able to process their own pressure, the better their lives and practices will be.

At Thought Leaders Business School, we’re always helping the tribe move above the line and to the right, so that they get into action. We didn’t set out to design a personal development course, though a great deal of personal development happens in parallel when you seek extraordinary results.

So how do we actually move around the model? When you are under the pump your pressure responses kick in. The two primary ways we respond to pressure is to seek affirmation or transformation. Those seeking affirmation will ask “Am I ok?” “Is this ok?” Those seeking transformation will either ideate or create. Whether seeking affirmation or transformation everybody can choose to think, or choose to do.

 
 

In her great book The Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson unpacks a process for shifting your behaviours. This talk from 99U unpacks her suggestions really well.

 

Once you are watching videos you might like to check out this great piece summarising Carol Dweck's mindset work.

 

Not everyone will put themselves under extra pressure intentionally and maybe it’s not for everyone. However, if you want to thrive in the disrupted future, it might be time to explore putting yourself under the pump. Pressure is not the only path to greatness, but it’s a solid workout. Do you go to the gym and bemoan the presence of the treadmill, because it causes you pain? No! You understand that subjecting your body to that particular trial will make it stronger, you make a decision, and get into action.

If you want to thrive in the disrupted future, it might be time to explore putting yourself under the pump