By Jimmy Zhang
Leadership experience is a significant component of the college admissions process. For example, Harvard’s Admissions Committee evaluates whether applicants have had leadership roles in high school. The Common Application’s “Activities Section” also asks students to provide a brief description of any leadership positions they have held in student organizations.
But, what does good leadership entail? And more importantly, how can you train yourself to become a more effective leader? These are difficult questions.
The good news is that, as famous football coach Vince Lombardi famously pointed out, "leaders are made, and not born." Anyone can learn to become an effective leader, regardless of your race, ethnicity, age, gender, or socioeconomic background. In this series of articles on how to improve your leadership skills, I’d like to share some of the most important leadership lessons that I’ve learned while volunteering for Embolden, serving in the U.S. federal government, and working on multiple political campaigns. These strategies helped me significantly improve my leadership and management skills, and I hope they will be helpful to you as well.
The team at #EmboldenMe places a significant value on the importance of leadership in our Student Leadership Program curricula. We ask our students in the application process to answer a series of questions on leadership. In the first post of this series on leadership, I will be highlighting the importance of demonstrating grace and poise under extreme pressure.
Even in the most stressful situations, great leaders can be resilient and maintain a sense of humor. While the examples highlighted below primarily describe instances of high-level leadership, the skills described can also apply to leadership scenarios in your everyday life, including within high school clubs, sports teams, or a part-time job.
The Story of “Bob”
So how do you exhibit grace and poise under pressure to best demonstrate leadership, whether in the classroom, or in a professional experience such as your first internship? Here is an anecdote from my time in the Department of Justice. The year is 2018. The Robert Mueller Investigation is still in full swing. Tensions between some Department of Justice officials and the administration of President Donald Trump reached a boiling point.
I was just a year and a half out of college. At the time, I was working within a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, on the same floor as “Bob,” a senior official. Despite Bob’s commitment to public service as a career government employee, he made a certain mistake that ensnared him in a significant political controversy. The controversy escalated to the point that President Trump publicly threatened to revoke “Bob’s” security clearance.
If Bob lost his security clearance, his career in the federal government would likely have ended, jeopardizing his ability to support his family. Furthermore, various Congressional committees were also investigating Bob’s family members, for reasons that may have been politically motivated. Congressional committees constantly called Bob to testify regarding the controversy, taking a significant amount of time away from his official duties at the Department of Justice.
Bob faced challenges that would have been overwhelming for any individual. Despite all these demanding circumstances, Bob relentlessly maintained a positive attitude during this time. He constantly walked through the hallways with a smile on his face. He knew the names of every single employee in the office, without exception, including all the twenty-something paralegals and entry-level hires, like myself. I would often run into Bob in the break room, and he would always greet me by name and ask me how my day was going. I, along with many of my young colleagues, looked up to Bob.
Amid personal or professional crises, some leaders lose their cool. Some leaders negatively channel their emotions and act unprofessionally toward their colleagues or loved ones. Other leaders just put their heads down and lose themselves in depression or regret. These individuals may possess fancy titles and formal “leadership” roles in high-profile organizations. But when a crisis hits, if they lose their cool under pressure, they will not be able to inspire their team members to continue contributing to their organization’s mission.
Moreover, a leader’s attitude or appearance of fear or loss of control can be contagious and lead to their entire team suffering from defeatism. Most importantly, leaders who lose control of their emotions will not be able to make high-quality decisions aimed at mitigating or resolving the underlying crises that they’re facing. In the most urgent, difficult situations, losing your cool may even jeopardize your organization’s integrity and survival.
On the other hand, there are leaders like Bob in organizations. Bob exemplifies the importance of demonstrating grace and poise under pressure. For instance, Bob faced overwhelming stressors that threatened his livelihood as well as his family, grievances which he had absolutely no control over. But still, Bob never lashed out at his colleagues, never showed up late to work, and never mismanaged any of his assignments. Despite these circumstances somehow, Bob managed to become even more competent, diligent, and friendly, and retain a sense of humor! He was still able to make high-quality, intelligent leadership decisions.
Training Yourself to Become More Resilient
Effective leaders, like Bob, have managed to train themselves to become highly resilient. They understand that even when they’re feeling scared, and overwhelmed, their leadership responsibilities don’t go away. If anything, their responsibilities become even more important. They still need to portray professionalism, make high-quality decisions, and need to support their teams.
Here are three ways to train yourself to become more resilient, and, in doing so, become a more effective leader.
First, consider letting out your heavier emotions in private. It is valid, and even beneficial, for leaders to demonstrate the full range of emotions in the workplace. Simply being emotional is not an issue and can even make you a better leader. However, stressful situations can sometimes induce leaders to display their heavier emotions, namely anger and fear, in a toxic manner that weighs on their colleagues and hinders their organization’s mission. This section is geared toward helping you manage these emotions in a productive manner that does not impede your leadership effectiveness or degrade your colleagues’ morale.
When faced with a stressful or overwhelming situation, I let myself be angry and afraid. I allow myself to express these emotions fully in the privacy of my bedroom or my office. And after that, I usually feel a lot better and can function more effectively throughout the day. Here’s a real-world example. As Stephen Pressfield explains, Henry Fonda, a celebrated actor, was still “throwing up before each stage performance, even when he turned seventy-five.” Fonda had a motto: “throw up and go!” Although this example may be highly unusual, the central point is that for Fonda, and for many other leaders, the fear, stress, and anxiety that comes with being a leader never completely disappears. Fonda dealt with his fear by throwing up in private. While an extreme technique, this enabled him to perform publicly with the highest degree of professionalism and allowed him to become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors. While you don’t have to go to Fonda’s lengths, letting out your heavier emotions in private will help you significantly improve your resilience and make you a better leader.
Second, to become more resilient, you can train yourself in mindfulness and meditation, which are excellent ways to reduce stress and improve your ability to concentrate. In fact, Professor Elizabeth Stanley at Georgetown University pioneered a technique called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), which has been used to train U.S. service members in the field. This training has helped troops more effectively remain “cool,” even when they’re taking fire under the most stressful battlefield conditions.
MMFT relies on techniques grounded in neuroscience and stress-physiology research to improve the body’s abilities to cope with stress. For instance, one technique requires practitioners to adopt certain breathing practices, or implement certain physical postures, in overwhelmingly stressful situations, to motivate the body to continue to function, instead of “freezing.” I would encourage you to consider reaching out to Professor Stanley directly if you are curious about MMFT. Professor Stanley loves hearing from students, and I am sure she would be delighted to connect you to MMFT courses and workshops in the Washington D.C. area.
Finally, make sure you monitor your “decision fatigue.” Do you ever notice how, at the end of a long day of work and school, you tend to become more tired, and thereby, have a harder time thinking coherently about complex issues? Decision fatigue posits that, as the number of consecutive decisions you make increases, the quality of each of your subsequent decisions decreases. As the New York Times explains, “you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
Indeed, I’ve discovered that background stressors only intensify the effects of decision fatigue. Especially in stressful conditions where you need to make continuous, high-stakes decisions, I’ve found that taking even a 20-minute power nap can be helpful. Then, your mind will be fresh, and you’ll be able to approach key leadership decisions from new angles.
You and I may never face stressors that rise to the level of what Bob had to go through. However, we will almost certainly encounter crises while serving in leadership positions, some of which will involve tense circumstances. If you’re able to emulate “Bob” to some degree, and at least appear to be graceful and calm in these situations, others will naturally gravitate toward you as a leader. Moreover, meditation and mind-fitness training will allow you to inspire your team to continue to function effectively even in the most stressful situations. Please be aware that while you’re under stress, the quality of your leadership decisions will likely significantly decline, particularly if you’re forced to make many critical decisions back-to-back. If time permits, it is worth considering whether you want to take a quick nap to mitigate the effects of decision fatigue.
The story of “Bob” showcases how good leaders make their employees and peers feel safe. Simon Sinek, best known for popularizing the concept of WHY in his first TED Talk and
the author of multiple best-selling books including Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, suggests that good leaders make you feel safe. Simon emphasizes how true leadership means stepping up, taking on risk, and putting personal interests second — not always — but when it counts.
Improving your resilience, maintaining a sense of humor, and demonstrating grace and poise under extreme stress is, conceptually, one of the simplest things you can do to improve your effectiveness as a leader. Whether you are in high school, a young professional, or a seasoned professional, everyone has the capacity to be an effective leader.
Leadership is a practical, learnable skill that is an ongoing process — and there is no better place to start than in high school.
Jimmy Zhang is Embolden’s director of national security programs. He has worked in multiple positions at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. This article has been reviewed by the U.S. Government. All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, any of their components, or the U.S. government.
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