If you’re a leader stress comes with the territory. I remember a time I was so used to pressure that I treated it as if it was my normal state of being not realizing just how much it was messing with my ability to lead. I didn’t get it that when I felt anxious or threatened I made poor decisions and when I was calm I made better decisions. Keeping cool under fire made all the difference in the world.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed at how many of my motivations have been insecurity or fear-based. When fear kicked in pushing a hot button – survival, acceptance, competence, or control – my natural tendency was to go into flee, fight or freeze mode and jump to quick fixes or look to ill-fitted technical solutions rather than prayerful, creative, Spirit-driven ones that required staying calm, quiet and attentive to God in the heat of the moment.
Does this mean that to be a good leader I had to become Spock-like, of course not. Coolheaded leadership requires being careful that my response to the situation is not to the anxiety I’m feeling but to the actual matter at hand. It means being aware and attending to my own internal stress in the heat of the moment. Resisting the temptation to either cool down the situation by pacifying and people pleasing, escaping the heat but aborting creative solutions, or reacting emotionally, adding fuel to the fire and making things worse. In either case instead of making a decision based on what’s best for the mission I’d often end up making a decision that was best for me.
So many ministry decisions are made to avoid hurt feelings, or in response to feeling threatened, or just to control things. The deciding factor isn’t the mission but what will anger the least amount of people or because the group or congregation has been scolded or guilted by the leader. Good decisions, however, come from the calm, cool peace of good spiritual discernment, not urgent, compulsive strong-arming or cajoling.
I’ve had to learn to pay attention to the things that trigger my anxiety and undermine my ability to make good decisions under pressure. Now I try to stop and ask myself, “Why am I reacting this way? What’s going on inside me? What’s being threatend?” Is it Survival? Competence? Acceptance? Control?
Once I can name it I can attend to it, give it to the Lord, pray for peace and clarity and ask for God’s perspective and wisdom. I can slow down, perhaps even sleeping on it instead of making a snap decision. I try taking James’ advise, “…be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” (James 1:19) Coolheaded leaders manage the heat of the situation by regulating the heat of anxiety, defensiveness, or anger inside them right there in the moment. Not allowing their own stress or the stress of others to affect their decisions and actions.
I wish I could say I’ve finally mastered this sort of self-regulation. I can always use more self-awareness and self-composure. So I continue to pray about it and work on it. In the meantime I’ve set a more modest goal than being perfectly calm under pressure. I shoot for being just a bit less anxious than everyone else in the room. As a coolheaded leader I want to have a calming influence on rash, knee-jerk reactions. I want my presence to turn the heat down so together we can focus on the real issues of the mission at hand.
For a much more thorough exploration of coolheaded leadership in a changing world I recommend the book Canoeing The Mountains: Christian Leadership In Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger.