To become an effective leader, there are several core capabilities you should have—ranging from the ability to influence and inspire others to knowing how to act decisively. While these traits are important in your daily role as a leader, they are especially critical during times of stress.

The demanding situations and crises you face over the course of your career are likely to be the moments that define who you are as a leader and, potentially, as a person. How you act in these scenarios can impact how your employees and co-workers remember you.

When managers break down, so can their teams, resulting in hindered performance and lower morale. This can cause your employees to miss deadlines, make mistakes, and potentially lose customers—the exact opposite of what you need during times of crisis.

Research shows it’s common for leaders to react poorly in high-stress situations. Specifically, 53 percent become more closed-minded and controlling during times of crisis, instead of open and curious. A further 43 percent become more angry and heated.

If you’re in a leadership position, learning how to control yourself and maintain a level head during challenging times will serve you well over the course of your career. But that can be easier said than done. Here are three techniques that can help you manage your team during a crisis while also keeping calm.

Strategies for Leading Under Pressure

1. Wait to Act


A leader is someone who responds to a situation calmly and with a well-thought-out plan. Before you jump headfirst into problem-solving, take a deep breath and pause to collect your thoughts and assess the situation with a clear mind.

This advice is the most important tip that Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, who teaches a free, online leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, learned when she studied former US President Abraham Lincoln’s method of leadership.

“One of the things Lincoln cultivated in high-stakes situations was to do nothing in the moment,” she explains. “He wasn’t living with nonstop social media. But he was constantly bombarded by people and important issues demanding his attention. In such an environment, his rule was that the higher the stakes, the less likely he was to do anything.”

In a crisis, it’s important to take a deep breath and remain as calm as possible—especially as the stakes rise or as circumstantial turbulence accelerates—before responding in order to move forward with an actionable plan and to avoid creating mass panic.

“The smallest pause before picking up the phone, sending out the tweet, or saying something to someone will help a leader gather his or her thoughts and maximize the chances that he or she makes a smart move,” Koehn says.

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2. Build a Strong Support System


Leaders rarely go it alone—it’s why they usually have a board of advisors, why former US President John F. Kennedy relied on his brother, or why Abraham Lincoln had two secretaries and a cabinet from which he frequently sought input.

“Great leaders have people around them who understand how to maintain a grounded, calm presence,” Koehn says. “It’s important they have advisors who are calm as well.”

To recruit a strong counsel, make sure the people around you have strength of character. Are they confident in their own viewpoints, but also open-minded and communicative? Do they support your vision? Besides quality leadership values, they should have diverse experience and emotional intelligence skills so they can take on a variety of responsibilities and help you lead to the best of your ability.

Koehn also recommends ensuring your management team is reliable so you can stay grounded and maintain a presence of equanimity. This can help people make the right decisions and successfully navigate through crisis.

It’s often said that success never happens in a vacuum. The amount of work your team puts in, along with their attitudes and ability to ask the right questions, can make or break success, so keep this in mind when you build your support network.

3. Understand the Reality of the Situation


It’s crucial to recognize the reality of a situation and acknowledge your limitations during a crisis, no matter how difficult that might be.

“Realize that in the heat of the moment, nothing an individual leader can do can solve the whole situation,” Koehn says. “You’re better off acting from your strongest, calmest self than you are taking the first reactive, immediate action.”

While a problem can seem overwhelming at first, the best way to approach it is to break it down step-by-step. Doing so can help you gain a clear picture of the circumstances, enabling you to work closely with your counsel, prioritize your next steps, and delegate effectively.

Once you’ve decided on a plan, stick to it and rely on yourself and your team to complete the tasks assigned and carry out a successful resolution.

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Becoming an Effective Leader

Becoming an effective leader takes work. Not only do you need to constantly hone your leadership skills, but you must also maintain poise under pressure and learn to adapt to various situations.

It also requires developing a personal leadership style. Like any successful leader, you don’t have to do it alone. Taking leadership courses can help you learn skills and qualities to use both in your personal and professional life.

Some of the benefits of taking a strategic leadership class include the opportunity to learn how to use your strengths and weaknesses to your advantage, practice your skills, and gain feedback from experienced leaders.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to become the president of a country or a business executive. You can become an effective leader at any stage of your career by becoming a go-to subject matter expert, consistently lending new and creative ideas in meetings, building networks throughout your company, voicing and articulating visions on how your organization can move forward, and much more.

Do you want to improve your leadership capabilities? Download our e-book on how to become a more effective leader or take our free, 35-minute leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, and discover how you can develop the skills to lead with courage and conviction.

Kelsey Miller

About the Author

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.