It’s inevitable that at some point in your life you will face a situation that will require you to remain calm under pressure.
Your child is choking, a customer is irate and irrational, a team member is not pulling his weight, you come upon a car accident, you fly your aircraft through a flock of birds on take-off and lose all of your engines…
How you respond to stressful situations will make or break you as a leader.
As leaders you have no choice but to remain calm, regardless of the situation. Therefore it’s required leaders learn how to compartmentalize their emotions and fear.
A compartmentalization technique I learned in aviation is what’s called “Hack the Clock”.
For every aircraft there is a handful of emergency action items that pilots are required to commit to memory. These “boldface” memory items are steps requiring immediate action in order to keep the aircraft flying and/or safe. Pilots study and practice these critical items until they become second nature.
The challenge when faced with an aircraft emergency is executing the boldface steps too quickly. There has been more than one aviator who has shut down a perfectly good engine (while the engine on fire remains running) because they rushed through their “second nature” boldface items.
Its human nature to want to put out an engine fire light as quick as possible; but it’s imperative that a pilot take all appropriate time necessary to make sure that the correct immediate actions are performed on the correct engine.
To help slow things down and help control the natural “fight-or-flight” response to danger, many aviators do something innocuous before performing any emergency action item. The technique I used was pushing the timing button on the navigation clock (e.g. Hack the Clock).
Pushing this button is not required and certainly doesn’t do anything to alleviate the emergency situation; but it does allow me to slow things down and let my brain catch up to the initial surprise and concern. The idea is to prevent me from executing an instant, incorrect, and possibly fatal reaction.
It’s important to understand that this technique doesn’t remove the feeling of concern or fear, rather it’s a technique to control or compartmentalize your natural reaction to respond immediately.
I found it interesting what Captain Chelsey Sullenberger had to say about how he felt moments after he realized that he lost both engines shortly after takeoff, prior to his miracle landing on the Hudson River: “It was the worst sickening, pit-of-your stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life….”
By all accounts from those on the plane with him, and from what we all heard on the radio transmissions, he was the epitome of calm cool professionalism. Little did any of us know what he was really feeling inside.
As leaders we can’t afford to fold or lose our bearing under pressure. The good news is that we can all learn how to compartmentalize and control our natural tendency to react.
The next time you’re faced with a crisis or emergency, your first step should be to do something innocuous (i.e. hack the clock, scratch your head, take a breath, etc.) to help you recover and maintain control.