How The Most Successful People Learn Under Pressure

Sometimes we just need the space to tackle big, daunting challenges alone.

How The Most Successful People Learn Under Pressure
[Photo: Flickr user Bernal Saborio]

Ever been thrown in at the deep end and told to swim? In practice, incremental professional development isn’t always how things work. And if you look back at your career–even if you’ve only been working a few years–there’s probably been at least one huge undertaking, crisis, or other crazy situation that you underestimated or didn’t see coming but learned a lot from in the end.

Why Sink-Or-Swim Experiences Matter

I’ve asked thousands of leaders in hundreds of executive development programs over the past 10 years whether they’ve ever had one of those sink-or-swim moments, and each time I do, just about every hand in the room shoots up.

I then ask a few people to share those experiences. Some leaders talk about bringing companies together during a merger. Others have told me stories about reinstating crashed IT systems and communications protocols in federal agencies after 9/11. In every case, what needed to get done amid these career-defining challenges was very clear.

But despite the high stakes, the how almost never was. Whenever I ask executives if there was someone beside them each step of the way saying, “Now here’s how you do the next thing, and here’s how you do the next thing and the next thing after that,” I get a knowing look that sort of says, “You’re kidding, right?”

And that’s exactly why all of these situations led to such important development experiences. Their professional growth–and their understanding of what it means to be a leader–shot forward rapidly when they had to confront these big hurdles. When faced with the prospect of sinking, they all learned how to swim.

Somewhere along the way, a superior placed a bet on you and let you get to work on solving a big, hairy problem. You might have balked at first or stumbled along the way, but you ultimately rose to that challenge, and here you are today. The most successful leaders know it’s their turn to pay it forward. There’s a high-performer on your team who needs a similar high-stakes challenge to take their career to the next level. Here are two key principles to help you offer it.

1. You Both Need To Pick Up And Let Go

From a purely practical standpoint, the only way for managers and other leaders to push their own careers forward is to let the people they manage do the same. Widening your own bandwidth means delegating. Let go of some of things you’ve been doing, and let someone else do them. Some of your duties–even the ones you see as part of your job description–are probably candidates for a big development experience for one of the high-performers on your team.

As a leader, you’re the keeper of the “what,” not the master of the “how”. It may be that for some of the tasks and responsibilities you hand off to others, you’re just about unconsciously competent. In other words, you can practically do them in your sleep. As you turn that work over to your team member, keep in mind that the outcome matters more than how it’s reached. You get to define what success looks like–and show your employee how you typically get there–but they now have to decide which method works best when they tackle that project, and that’s for them to sort out.

2. Be A Life Preserver, Not A Lifeguard

Still, it’s in no one’s interest to let your top performers drown. Keep an eye on the situation and be there to throw them a buoy if they’re about to go under. That doesn’t mean that you’re playing the role of lifeguard, perched overhead, keeping an eye on their every move, and blowing your whistle whenever they do something you disagree with.

Remember that your own high-stakes challenge was useful precisely because there wasn’t someone on hand orchestrating things for you. Step away, but stay nearby. Your job is to create the room it takes to succeed independently. Once your employee does that, they’ll have the confidence to dive back into the pool the next day–without you tossing them in.