My heart was beating so hard I thought everyone on the Zoom meeting would be able to see it. The attack came out of nowhere. I was pissed. I wanted to fight back. Faced with leading under pressure, what would I do? It took every ounce of effort I could muster to respond, not react, to the false accusations being leveled against me by a member of my team.

Have you ever felt that way? One of the main messages I teach leaders is to stay calm, cool, and collected when leading under pressure. This was the moment of truth. Would I walk my talk? Even though my emotions were running high and at a boiling point, I maintained my cool and responded assertively but did not react. Later on, several team members thanked me for demonstrating grace while leading under pressure. Whew. I did it. It wasn’t easy but I passed the test.

It’s one thing for me tell other leaders what they should do but it’s another entirely to practice what I teach. While the experience was unpleasant, I know it helps other leaders who are leading under pressure. No leader escapes this test. If you are doing your job, you will face opposition at some point. Whether you’re sharing bad news, implementing change, or someone has a personal beef with you, you will feel like you are under attack.

A natural reaction to an attack is to defend yourself. A true leader will consider the long-term impact of their reaction. You will never win the war by freaking out in the battle. When you lose your cool, you lose the trust of your team. Regardless of who started it. No one really pays attention to the person who made the attack. They have already shown who they are. People are watching to see how you will respond to it. How you choose to respond speaks volumes about you as a leader.

Here are some tips on how to lead under pressure so you can respond with grace and professionalism, instead of react, when you find yourself being the target of an attack:

Be self-aware. Know the signs that the fight or flight response is about to kick in. Pay attention to your thoughts, your actions, and your physical reactions. Create a stress log so you can track your reactions. Do your thoughts turn negative? Is it hard to focus? Do you retreat or lash out? Does your heart rate increase? Does your body tense up? Are you holding your breath? Self-awareness is the first step towards successful self-monitoring.

Leading Under Pressure

Self-regulate. Learning how to self-regulate is not easy. You really don’t know what you’re made of until you are in the heat of the battle. Don’t be surprised if you mess up a few times before you learn this skill. There are 2 simple things you can do to get started. Breathe and think. Regulating your breath is a great tool to help you stay calm. Also, it’s always wise to think before you speak. Use the acronym THINK to ask yourself, is what I’m about to say true, helpful, important, necessary, and kind?

Make an assertive response. Self-regulating doesn’t mean tolerating bad behavior. Remember the 3 rules of assertive communication: be clear, be concise, be nice. Be clear that the conversation should be taken offline. Be concise in your response and avoid getting caught up in the drama vortex. If the person is making untrue accusations call them out on it but refrain from calling them names.

Self-regulation is one of four components of emotional intelligence. The most successful leaders I’ve known are the ones who can remain calm under pressure. I’ve been on the receiving end of attacks many times during my leadership career and I didn’t always handle it very well. In fact, one of the first books my mentor gave me was “Working With Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. She gave me that book because I needed to learn how to cope with adversity. I had to develop the skill of self-control. I learned that I always win when I don’t fight back. That may seem counter-intuitive but never lose sight of the long game. It pays to think about what kind of a leader you want to be and then do your best to live up to the standards you’ve set for yourself.

Leading Under Pressure: Learn to Respond, Not React