Why Great Leaders Underplay Pressure


Last week, I met the ex-head of a very well known Financial Services regulator.

He’s been in the news a lot over the past few years. His previous institution was at the center piece of the financial crisis and at one point he was in the news regularly as one of the key personalities trying to stabilize global markets. 

Being under such scrutiny and pressure, I was particularly interested in how he went about actually making decisions and getting things confidently done amidst the surrounding mayhem. 

Did he ensure his team was under extra warning to keep them on their toes? Did he consistently double, triple and quadruple check things before executing? Did he constantly follow the press and media to see what the outside world was thinking and saying?

Much to my surprise, he actually took the total opposite approach. According to him, with so much external pressure, he has realized quite quickly that the only way to act correctly and decisively was to focus more on the actual facts and getting things done, rather than spending unnecessary energy on worrying about what others might be saying. Instead of consistently reminding his team of the stress and high-stakes involved, he actually underplayed the pressure so that they could think rationally to chose the correct course of action.

To quote him, he even encouraged them to have a sense of humor and where possible “try and have fun”.

And considering that the majority of the general public would say that he did a very good job over those few years, it was perhaps a less obvious approach that actually worked.

It got me thinking. And when I thought back about some of the best leaders I have worked for, I realized that this was a common trait of many successful people.

Whilst most people can start getting stressed and even start panicking, some of the best leaders I have worked with tend to not get carried away and stay calm.

Here are some reasons why great leaders underplay pressure.

It reduces stress

Although good in small doses, ultimately consistently being under the microscope eventually breaks even the strongest of personalities down.

When we feel that every single action or decision we make is subject to scrutiny and possible criticism, things can quickly get suffocating.

We feel trapped. Like others are waiting for us to slip up. That everything is at stake – and if we make a mistake we will be letting others down.

Our heart rate increases. Cortisol levels go up. We start thinking about things in the shower, whilst with friends and even when trying to go to sleep. Slowly, but surely the pressure keeps building and building until eventually we snap and break down.

Great leaders understand that negative pressure can often be the fastest way to indecision and failure. Just like consistently reminding a child about how not getting good grades will ruin their entire lives in the desperate attempt to scare them to perform, pessimistic environments rarely work. Big achievements require lots of time and effort – hence it’s essential to try and enjoy ourselves as much as possible.

Hence in order to get their team to relax and remain positive, they understand the importance to protect them from external criticism and unnecessary pressure.

Great leaders reduce stress.

It creates focus

When the stakes are high, our minds can start whirring.

In order to cover all possible bases, we can start to ask ourselves all kinds of different questions.

Is this the best possible course of action? What are the risks involved? Would a less riskier option be the better course of action for now? What about the costs? Will we be able to execute as planned? Will everyone else be supportive? What if others strongly disagree?

It’s understandable. The greater the pressure, the more diligent we tend to be. The problem is, there’s usually only so much we can take on at a time and hence it’s important to not get too distracted by everything at once and try and start actually getting things done.

Great leaders understand that the best solutions can only be found through laser like focus. They understand that when pressure is high, it’s easy to succumb to over analysis. We may to try and please everyone and address all concerns – even though sometimes this may actually be physically impossible. So in order to focus on the most important issues, they eliminate distractions. Remove unnecessary opinions and unwanted commentary.

Thereby reducing the external pressure so that their team can focus on building and executing the right plan.

Great leaders focus on plans.

It empowers people to be bold

Big problems often require big decisions.

The need to take courageous action and act decisively.

Whether in the world of business, politics or even personal achievement – often what separates the very best from the rest of us is the fact that they were prepared to make big decisions that others simply weren’t prepared to make.

The problem is, pessimism and negativity aren’t the best breeding grounds for courage. If we seek the opinion of the masses and are too worried about keeping everyone happy, there will always be someone who creates doubt and uncertainty. And all it takes is one doubtful thought or slight bit of hesitation and that once in a lifetime opportunity can slip by.

Great leaders believe that courage is an essential building block in success. They realize the importance of breeding courage – of giving others the chance to grow in confidence, to not be afraid of making mistakes, and to be raised in an environment where they are encouraged and supported – however crazy the idea.

By underplaying pressure and empowering others to be bold and decisive – even when the stakes are high – they build teams that are always going to push new boundaries and create an environment that will breed success.

Great leaders breed success.


Most leaders are under pressure.

Hence, they naturally pass this onto their teams – consistently reminding them of expectations, targets and the unwanted consequences of failure.

However great leaders are different. Rather than simply transfer all pressure to their teams, they actually know when to protect them from it. In order for them to stay focused, be more successful and most importantly: have more fun.

It’s a technique that all of us could probably use more frequently.

Does your leader underplay pressure?

Jas Singh