Here’s a story I like to tell audiences about keeping your composure. Imagine a five-alarm fire, a really big one that involves an entire city block.
If you happen to arrive at one, you will see people scurrying about. Civilians will be fleeing the scene or standing back watching. It’s also very hot, really hot when an entire building is ablaze. Sirens are ringing and there is a lot of noise – shouting, machines churning, and fire hoses spraying. Firemen will be running toward the fire, and to a layman the scene may seem chaotic but trust me, skilled first responders know their jobs. If you are lucky, you might come across the fire battalion chief.
Talk about calm. You could stroll up to him or her, and ask about the weather. Yet their eyes are always in motion, scanning this way and that, watching for signs of trouble. But their voice is calm, perhaps even low and very calming. Whatever they might be feeling inside does not show outside.
Because their responsibility is to direct the response, and by remaining cool and collected they are able to keep everyone else at ease. This is vital to a crisis. If the leader comes unglued, then people become frightened.
So what does that means for us in management? Keep it together. If you are tense and upset, keep it to yourself. Never show fear. Your people need someone who is in control, or at least seems that way.
Of course leaders become afraid. “We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear,” writes Senator John McCain, “but the capacity for action despite our fears” Fear therefore requires the management of it through courage. An outward manifestation of courage is composure. So when you are responsible for the fates and careers of others, you need to control your fear so that you can maintain control of the situation. Just as a fire battalion chief does.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2009, Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. This article draws upon themes expressed in John’s newest book, Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009).