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Under Pressure – Bringing things under control

There is a scene in the wonderful film Matilda when Bruce Bogtrotter, accused of stealing food, is faced with the punishment of eating a giant chocolate cake. Now I like chocolate cake, but anyone watching can see the task of eating this cake seemed insurmountable. However, against the odds and with the support of his classmates cheering him on, he gets through the task, ‘one bite at a time’.

As leaders, pressurised moments can seem insurmountable and, when facing them, it’s easy to feel out of our depth. The key here is to break the situation down and understand its component parts, as well as to acknowledge that you have the skills and experience to tackle it, even if you have not faced this exact experience before. Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes in their book, ‘High performance, lessons from the best on becoming your best’ outline 3 key steps in doing this. They talk about understanding correctly the Demands, Ability and Consequences by

· Reducing the sense of demands

· Increasing your belief in your ability

· Balancing your view of the consequences


In any high-pressure moment, it can feel like everything is being demanded of you, much of which we initially think we can’t handle. So, in such situations, firstly think about:

· What is the outcome that I want from this?

· What does a good outcome look like?

Then break the ideal outcome down into component parts:

· What is needed to achieve it?

· What experience do I have to help me do it?

· Who have I got access to that could help me with it?

At this point, the demands now seem more manageable. We know what we need to do and who is going to help us do it. There is a team to meet the demands.


Pressurised moments often have new experiences intertwined in them. As a result, we feel that we don’t have the ability because we don’t have the experience. And here is the paradox; we may not have the experience because we haven’t faced this situation before, but we do have the skills because skills are interchangeable, and we have likely developed them from a similar – if not identical – situation. For example, when I was a headteacher, my school had a bomb scare while I was off-site. Of course, I had no experience of this situation. However, I did have experience of mentoring someone and I had experience of a fire drill. So, I was able to draw on those experiences and use the skills there to mentor my on-site senior leader through their actions. In the same way, when you are under pressure, determine what specific skills are required. Then, consider what experiences you have had that can be drawn on to utilise the skills you used in that situation. Where there are gaps, think about who around you can help you with that. In the Leadership Lounge Podcast last week, Vicki Gascoyne-Cecil recounted a high-pressure moment she has had as a headteacher, in which someone phoned the school threatening a drive-by shooting. Vicki obviously had no prior experience of such a thing, but she did have experience of dealing with challenging safety moments. She determined what skills both she and her colleagues had, and allocated roles accordingly. Key questions for us are:

· What experience do I have that I can call upon?

· What skills do I have?

· What skills do those around me have?

· What do I need to focus on?


The thing about high-pressure moments is that they do often have consequences. This is why we feel the pressure –because our minds tell us there is something at risk if we don’t get it right. But, by changing our thinking, we can reduce this pressure. The first stage is to look at the situation realistically:

1) What is actually at stake here?

2) Reduce the risk of that happening. Look at each risk and consider the best ways to reduce that from coming to fruition.

3) Consider its long-term importance. Consider how you will feel in 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months and 5 years from now about this event.

4) How can this be a learning experience? When we view a situation as not being a pass/fail moment but as a learning opportunity to discover about yourself and your team, it can take the pressure off.

All three of these steps are about getting a realistic picture of what the situation needs and the skills you and others have to meet the situation. It helps to tackle the ‘cake’, one bite at a time. Cake is also better shared than eaten alone!

Can we help you?

How are you with dealing with pressure and a crisis? Coaching can help you grow in confidence in dealing with these tricky issues. Everyday Leader’s team of coaches can help you understand what is going on in your head and how you can manage your emotions and other people in those moments. Give us a call on 01449 710438 if you would like us to help you explore this and empower you and your team.

Everyday Leader is here to empower, inspire and equip you to do that. If we can help you find a way forward, through coaching, training or consultancy, do let us know. Contact us now:


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