The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“Leading Under Pressure”
March 23, 2020
Intro: The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting financial crisis has created a lot of uncertainty for ministry and business leaders. Every organization has been affected, and most have been affected drastically. Nearly everyone is dealing with falling revenues, learning to manage remote teams, and significant instability. How do leaders keep their composure? Find out how, next.
Female: This is the Flourishing Culture Podcast. Here’s your host, president of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Al Lopus.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. We are here to help you eliminate workplace distrust, improve your employees’ experience, and grow your organization’s impact. And before we meet our special guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
Also, if you could share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would really mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
Given the uncertainty of our times because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the resulting shockwaves to the economy, the pressure on leaders is mounting rapidly. And today we’ve asked our friend, Dr. Rob McKenna, the author of Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, and founder of WiLD Leaders, Inc., to coach us through the next season of our leadership.
Hi, Rob, and welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Rob McKenna: Hey, Al. It’s great to be talking to you today.
Al: So, tell us, Rob. Even now, what are you seeing with leaders under pressure this past week or so with the explosion, if you will, of the coronavirus, the shutting down of so much of our economy? What are you seeing?
Rob: It’s so interesting, Al. I think on the business side of—we work with so many organizations, whether they’re universities or for-profit organizations or some crazy-awesome non-profits and ministries that are out there, but I think one of the things from, quite literally, is one of the biggest pressure points that is that they’re facing in a concrete kind of way is cash flow, just getting really real. That’s what so many places are facing. And so the dilemma for them is this question of, do I start to sell? You know what I mean? Do I attempt to stay in business, or do I approach it like I’m fertilizing the ground for the future, or do I let go of both those things and just try to straight out serve the people around me, with this uncertainty about the future of my organization? And I think that’s kind of this symptomatic thing that it’s not—I mean, that’s a big symptom that’s right in front of us that’s causing all kinds of other anxiety. I mention that because it’s a reality that so many leaders who we’re talking to face.
And one other thing I wanted to mention was that a few weeks ago, two or three weeks ago, I was in Palm Beach, Florida, which seems like forever ago now—maybe it was three or four weeks ago—but I was at a conference that was all focused on leaders and security. So a lot of CSOs, chief security officers, but people who were—and it’s gotten me thinking so much about, I just was in touch with their reality on the physical security side but also the cyber- and certainly the digital-security side. And one of the things that I thought about was related to them and a lot of other people who have prepared well for this moment is, this is quite literally their Super Bowl. You know what I’m saying? This is the game for which they prepared. And so my heart is just deeply—like, just goes out to all those people. And I think for those of us in the business of supporting leaders across these amazing organizations, in many ways, it’s ours, too. And sometimes the Super Bowl is, sometimes it’s not fun. You know what I mean?
Al: It’s hard work, yeah.
Rob: You get hit, but it’s the reason why you’re in the game. And it’s just something I’m seeing that’s out there right now.
Al: So, Rob, when I thought about how you could encourage and help leaders be the best that they are, I immediately thought of you. And what drew you originally to the research and the writing that you’ve done about leaders who effectively lead under pressure? What brought you this topic to start with?
Rob: Oh, man. So, years ago, I was involved in a few longitudinal studies, and I told you this story a couple times. This is the interesting connection point, and I’m not trying to make lemonade out of lemons right now, but there is a developmental reality that’s in front of us. There’s this amazing research base, and we were a part of some of this research, and other folks were, too, around the key developmental experiences that leaders go through and the characteristics of those experiences. And in almost every case, those big developmental moments that prepared this leader—and a generation of leaders, quite frankly—for what was next and developed their leader capacity were moments like this. So they were moments where there was a ton of uncertainty, a ton of adversity, a lot of financial pressure, a lot of exposure, leaders who were maybe at best 50/50 percent sure they might succeed or fail, and everyone’s going to watch when it happened. There were huge stakes. And so we started seeing that. And for me, when I thought it over in Oregon, I thought there is something important to understand.
And so we spent a few years, and have continued this, of trying to understand, then, what does that pressure cooker look like, that’s developmental in nature, but how have people actually experienced pressure and uncertainty? And then also, what have they done to manage that well, as they’ve attempted to be present for their people, like a best and composed version of themselves under pressure? And so it came from just seeing the reality that development is like this.
And so it got me, long before this moment, just super interested in that process, the weird connect—and this is where I’m not trying to make that lemonade—but there is a reality that an incredible generation of leaders are being born right now. That’s what the research would say, is that if people are completely on the edge and completely uncertain and leaders are having to step up in ways they don’t know how, the true leader development laboratory is in place. And so, that’s what’s kind of fascinating right now, is it’s the reality, but yet you don’t want this reality, you know?
Al: Yeah. It’s kind of like the spiritual experience that we’ve all had that we actually grow through suffering. Leaders are experiencing a key developmental opportunity right now in this season. Wow, yeah. The cauldron that creates leaders.
Rob, in the last two weeks, our world has turned upside down, and the time of this podcast is March 19. Schools, churches, restaurants, and many other places have been now closed for about a week, and the stock market’s down 30 percent. Many employees are working from home. We’re seeing that many employees are or will be out of work because of the closures. Things are changing so rapidly. Many leaders are looking for a playbook, but there isn’t one, so the pressure is mounting. So let’s start our conversation talking about pressure from a leadership perspective. Help us name it. Describe, what is pressure, from your perspective?
Rob: I know this may be weird, but could I read something from my book, a paragraph?
Al: Sure, mm-hmm.
Rob: Sometimes when I say something and it sounds better than me, I’m like, oh, that must be God, because I don’t remember writing certain things. I was just reading through one thing that I’d written, and it says this: “Most of us face high-pressure situations more often than we would like.” And again, I published this a couple years ago. “In some cases, we’ve brought these situations on ourselves, and in other cases, they have been the result of circumstances that are outside of our control. You may be facing the need to have a dreaded conversation with someone close to you, or have been asked to speak in front of a group, and that is enough to make you feel sick. You may work with a person who taxes you emotionally, and because you spend so much time managing your relationship, there’s little time left to do much else. Or you may have taken on a leadership role in an area where you don’t have much confidence. In these situations and in all the others that tax us emotionally, mentally, and even physically, the common reality is that the stakes feel high.”
You know, I read that paragraph. Aand normally, when you write a book like this, you’re trying to bring it home to the normal circumstances where pressure shows up. And these are very real situations that most of us would have related to really well yesterday. I almost feel like right now the systemic pressure that is sort of running among all of us is almost transcending all these other pressure moments, because these moments are still there. I mean, I’m thinking about how people are navigating pressure, interpersonal pressure moments, just in virtual work teams right now.
I mentioned that because what I think people are experiencing on—there’s at least three levels to think about when it comes to how people experience pressure. And one level would be what I described as interpersonal. So there’s that between people. And another level is a pressure that I think so many people are feeling right now, that is more intrapersonal. So it’s like you’re experiencing this inside of yourself, regardless of what everyone else is experiencing. It’s just all these factors. And then the third level is an environmental pressure, so something that is being—it’s coming from outside of you that’s affecting the first two. And I think right now we’re in a space in the game—let me go back to the Super Bowl idea. And you mentioned, what coaching tips. Quite literally, we are probably still in the first half. You know what I’m saying? So I think what the rest of the game looks like, we’re going to have to continue to adapt and understand pressure then.
But what pressure is, and this is what I’ve always described it when people have asked, is pressure is an invisible force that tells us that something is changing. And I think when that pressure feels completely outside of our control, it just exacerbates the level of it. And right now, you combine that with uncertainty and sort of the amount of change we’re experiencing that we truly are probably in the first quarter, even if we were over into the second half of the actual virus, we’re probably in the first quarter of what it’s going to feel like emotionally to move through this uncertainty.
I love the way you asked me that, Al, and was that I think part of the challenge right now—and maybe this is the opportunity. I’m not just trying to pretend or reframe everything in a pretend sort of way, but so many people right now are experiencing pressure as a default. In other words, if I don’t intentionally think about it, think about what it actually is, I will default to things or words that I would describe like anxiety and fear and uncertainty. And those things are real. But I also think there’s a developmental way, not a default. Like I always think of a default on a loan. You know, if you default on a loan, it means you do nothing. But if we do nothing intentionally, we’re going to go toward our fears. But I think if we named it and we said, so what is really happening right now, and what is it that I can control in this moment that it might be a bit different? So it is such an interesting thing for each of us to think about, but the first thing would be just to name it. When we get to naming, it actually looks a little bit different for each of us in different ways.
Al: And we certainly have seen a lot of anxiety and fear and I think many of us even feeling anxiety and fear. But, yeah, I love what you’re saying, Rob. Certainly, the stakes feel high. You mentioned that as kind of a partial definition.
We’ve talked to a number of our ministry partners just in the last couple days, and they’re saying they’re not sure that their organization’s going to look the same in six months or a year from now as it is now. It’ll be morphed and transformed into something else, clearly, because of this invisible force that tells us something is changing, and we certainly feel that, don’t we? People talk about other events, the financial recession that we’ve been through in 2008 and ’09, or even going back to 9/11. Those are experiences, or from the stock market Black Monday in 1987. And that’s the kind of discussion people are having. Something is changing, and, really, things changed after every one of those events, that’s for sure.
Rob: You know what else, Al, that you made me think of is that you know that my driving mission is whole leader development. How do we create a whole leader? What does it look like to move toward wholeness? And one of the things that sometimes when we’re not in this moment that I have to work hard to convince people of, which is funny, actually, most leaders get this, is that our whole perspective actually connects multiple things together, two of which are money and the heart. So it doesn’t have to be just money, but literal resourcing, like the things that you can touch and see and put your hand on, whether it is money or whether it’s organizational mission statements or goals and the things that we write down. So the connection between the money and the heart.
Now, what’s so interesting right now is I think a moment like this, it really shows our roots. One thing that I think it’s good and it’s hard to see is that it exposes the roots of what we were really about. And not only that, but it exposes the roots of what causes depression. And it bothers me when ministries are so uncomfortable talking about money. You know what I mean? We want to talk about things of the heart. And I think the things of the heart, there is an alignment between psychology and our faith, by the way. I don’t think that those things are in battle, because psychology is the study of all the invisible stuff, and there is no better time than right now, we are all faced with the reality that—let’s just take money as the example because I can use a different example but it’s so salient right now. Literal resourcing and whether I’ll have to lay off people who I love and care for is connected to thousands of emotions of the heart. And so right now, no one is going to deny that these things are so interlocked in the whole experience of a person and a leader. And I’m just grateful that you brought that up.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast. We’ll be right back after this brief word about a valuable tool that can pinpoint the true, measurable health of your culture.
Male: What if you could get an upper hand on unwanted turnover, relationship conflicts, struggling morale, and unproductive staff, and, at the same time, increase the effectiveness and impact of your organization? You can with the Best Christian Workplaces Employee Engagement Survey. This popular, proven resource pinpoints the true health of your workplace culture and ways to improve it.
You’ll get a detailed breakout summary of the eight essential ways your culture and your organization can flourish, all from a principled, practical, faith-based approach that works. Join the more than 800 satisfied organizations, churches, and Christian-owned businesses who have said, “Yes.” Sign up online today at bcwinstitute.org. The Best Christian Workplaces Employee Engagement Survey. It’s your first important step on the road to a flourishing culture.
Al: All right. Now, let’s hear more from today’s guest.
Let’s talk a little more about this. As leaders, we all react to pressure situations differently. How does being under pressure impact us, Rob?
Rob: That is such an interesting question. We have fundamentally these, I think, habits. When we’re not in a moment like this, it’s funny when you try to explain it to people, but we all have what I describe as a habitual way of responding under pressure. And sometimes for some of us, we begin to speak a lot. You hear a lot of, a lot of, a lot of from that leader. And other people, they actually will spend most of their time trying to make sure everyone else is heard and more like on the peacekeeper side and the truth-speaker side. And so I think the result of it is if for leaders can look like that. But what is so interesting right now, and where I’ve spent so much of my work on, is trying to help leaders to understand how to focus just as much on their presence in a moment as they are on the decisions that they’re making. I would suggest that one of the most powerful things that a leader could do is understand how they’re showing up in this moment, and that that is just as, if not more, powerful than all the concrete things that they think they must do right now.
And I think decisiveness is really important in moments like this. Especially in these early quarters of the game, people need clarity, but at the same time, we’ve all experienced this, that emotions are contagious. I just finished writing a blog about this, about the emotional pandemic we’re experiencing. And so this question, and I think most of development and most of leadership is actually a set of questions as much as it answers. So it’s not to dismiss that there’s data out there we need to listen to. But there are a lot of decisions to make, and which data to listen to. Emotions are so contagious. And so you think about it. You think about it. For those of us in different parts of the country, if the news channels—and I’m not blaming any news channels, because they’re trying to figure out what data to show—but if they show us a grocery store with empty shelves, and then we go to our local grocery store and it has three-quarters of its food still on the shelf, what are we to think? What is reality? Is it that all grocery stores are empty? So it’s this interesting connection between the contagion of emotions, how to show up in a way that as a leader to certainly be emotionally connected and empathetic, but not to default but to think, “Okay, my people need me to be calm, and I need to figure out what does calmness look like for me right now so that I don’t become a contagion even in the midst of what people are feeling.” It’s horrible. And that’s why the job of leading is so challenging right now, but so critical.
Al: But I love what you said, Rob. We as leaders need to focus on presence as well as decision making. And we’re usually thinking, the leaders I work with are typically thinking, “Oh, gosh, what am I going to do now?” It’s all about the decision making, and they’re not thinking about presence. And you’re saying that both of those are important, and I believe they are. So that’s really helpful for our audience to think about that.
I remember one time I was making an announcement that we were shutting down part of our business in the firm I worked with before. And as I was making that announcement, strategically, I knew it was the right thing to do. Emotionally, I was kind of connected to it. And somebody came up to me, another leader came up to me after I had made the first announcement of working in focus groups of several groups. And the leader said, “Al, your emotions. You say that this is really a good idea, but it doesn’t look like you feel that way. So what you’re saying and how you’re presenting yourself isn’t congruent.” And I thought that was really helpful, and we need to think about that.
Rob: One other thing, Al, too, about that is on the positive side, I believe that that presence you’re describing is just as contagious as the anxiety, because we’ve seen it happen, where it can have an exponential impact on the entire system if the leader can show up as the best version of themselves.
Al: And we are experiencing emotional pandemic. I love that term. Dr. Rob McKenna, he’s pointed out the emotional pandemic we’re experiencing right now.
So here’s where we need your help. What have been the most-powerful things that leaders can do to show up as their best self as they’re working through this with their teams?
Rob: So what we did was I got—when I saw that this was the pressure reality on leaders and we saw the impact on them and some of these tendencies to over speak or to peacemonger or to just not deal with pressure well, what we did is we studied some—we looked for strategies that leaders were using under pressure. And so 11 strategies emerged. And one thing that I want to point out about leader development is that so often we see kind of the “here’s the seven ways to lead well,” and leader development is a bespoke process. I love this word. Bespoke in a marketing sense means customize; one size does not fit all. So let me say that those 11 strategies all were important and included things like self-awareness and seeing the big picture and self-regulation and control was a part of it. So in our research, all these different strategies emerged. When people look through my book, for example, there is a chapter on each of these 11 strategies, so I think different people need to lean into their own strengths and areas where they could use some development. But at the same time, as a psychologist, I also am drawn to understand, if I did give someone—on average, what worked for most people? What was the most powerful strategy?
When we researched, what it allowed people to be composed and present under pressure, two strategies emerged as, by far, the most important for most people. And the number one was sense of purpose. And this has emerged in multiple studies over the last 20 years that I’ve been a part of is that the extent to which a person knows why they’re in the situation in the first place is just as important as anything they do. This means that even in this moment, one of the ways that you can give yourself that keel on your ship in the midst of the storm is to literally think about the meetings on your calendar today and say, why am I in each one of these meetings? What is my purpose there? On our WiLD team, one thing that we do before we meet with anyone is we will ask each other, why are we in this? And so that was a critical component as one of those keels was if there was one thing I would say it was sense of purpose. But it’s not a generalized purpose. So even if you’re having a conversation—because this is creating a ton of anxiety at home, too. And so if you’re going into it, you may be having fights with your teenagers right now and not even knowing where it’s coming from, because this pandemic is affecting the way we’re even working with our kids because they’re all home. And so me reminding myself of why I am my two sons’ dad, according to our research, is critical.
The second top strategy that was predictive of this capacity to compose ourselves under pressure was focusing on potential. What this meant was that leaders who were able to think about positive potential outcomes in the midst of the real barriers as well were able to be their best selves. And so, again, the practice would be is to make sure that you maintain that capacity with your team and with yourself to say, “This is hard, but what could emerge even out of this hardship that we’re experiencing right now?” Even if an organization—this sounds horrible to say—but if an organization’s having to lay off part of its workforce, there are possibilities that will emerge. And these are not things we would wish upon people, but that they will emerge. And so those two strategies, sense of purpose and focusing on potential, were clearly, of the eleven, for most people, really, really critical.
Al: Rob, you and I have often talked about purpose and potential, and you’ve just outlined those are the two most-important strategies. And when we’re under pressure, how do you connect purpose and potential in terms of the intersection with our faith in Christ? Is there a connection there between purpose and potential and the intersection with our faith?
Rob: I love this question. And you also know me, Al, pretty well, and I’m not one to oversimplify my own faith and how it works and the mystery of what God does in my life. At the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially over these days, and I must speak from my own experience of my own faith in Christ. And it’s, first of all, one of the things I’m incredibly grateful for is that God—while I think it’s important, psychologically speaking, to think about our real purpose in these different situations and not to make it some sort of pithy, “Well, God gave me a purpose, so now I’m good,” I think the reality is, I think specificity matters.
And at the same time, what I found so incredibly comforting moment after moment is that God has handed me the foundation of that purpose. The things of our faith were the same yesterday or six months ago as they are today. So the framing on my purpose in every moment, when it comes to the heart of it, hasn’t really changed, because it’s rooted in the Lord’s providence in my life.
And so, then, when I begin to think about my purpose— and God has given me so many facets of that, to love my neighbors as myself, to even love my enemies in this moment, to love the person who is cutting in front of me at the local grocery store to get toilet paper—you know what I’m saying?—even those moments that come, but being I think the point is to be intentional about reminding ourselves of what God has purposed us for.
And I think back to the story of Isaiah. You know that moment when he says, “Lord, send me”? Who will go, and Isaiah said that.
Al: Isaiah 6.
Rob: Who will go? And I think what’s so interesting is that just moments before Isaiah said, “I’m not worthy to hear you, even, Lord.” And then God comes and burns the coal on his lips. And so I think the other part is, Lord, sometimes I’m not seeing your purpose clearly, and so do that miracle for me, I think is pretty powerful.
On the potential side, I just had a student who did her dissertation on hope. I think there is something—when we have a hope in a transcendent God who sacrificed everything for us, my capacity even—I don’t even want to say it that way—the Lord’s capacity to unleash the potential in me as a leader, it’s unbelievable what could happen in moments like this, because it changes my entire perspective. Even you asking me this question, quite frankly, Al, is ministering to me because I think—that’s what I hope for other people, is that our hope and our purpose is planted somewhere so, so deep from a God who sacrificed everything for us in spite of our not deserving it. I’m just—thank you for asking.
Al: Well, you know, Rob, that’s interesting. When we get caught up in the fray and caught up in the tornado or the storm, if you will, and what hasn’t changed, and I can speak for many leaders who are listening, yes, we have a clear purpose. We have a clear calling. We know that that has not changed. In fact, it’s probably even clearer and more important now if we just focus on it. And, yeah, and we do. We have a hope in Christ. And He is certainly bigger and more powerful than what we’re going through now. So, amen. I can only say amen to that.
Rob: Al, my dad has always said to me over my lifetime, every time in hard spaces, I never forget his voice. He always says, “He is still on the throne.” He said it to me so many times over the years, and that’s a good reminder for me today.
Al: Rob, we’ve really enjoyed all we’ve learned today. And I really like, just starting back on what is pressure and what are we experiencing as leaders right now? Well, it’s when we feel like the stakes are high, when we understand that there’s an invisible force that tells us that something is changing. And, boy, those are things that we are definitely feeling. And how we shouldn’t default to anxiety and fear in this process, but really face it. And also I love just how we as leaders when we’re under pressure, we need to not only focus on decision making, which we think is so much an important part of what we do, and it is important, but also how we show up in our presence. And that’s really a helpful reminder. And as I think about just the two important strategies, and I appreciate you sharing two things, two strategies that we can keep in mind, and that is that we have and focus on our sense of purpose to know why it is that we’re doing and to really focus on the potential that’s in front of us. And we all know that when there’s a crisis situation, that there’s always something new that can come out of it. If we just stop and think and pray about it, it’s often revealed to us. So thanks for all you’ve shared with us today.
Rob: Yeah, thanks, Al.
Al: So let’s put a bow on our interview. One final thought, Rob. What final thought or encouragement could you leave with our listeners today?
Rob: The pressure you feel is real. I would hope that you would hear the sincerity in my heart when I say that, and I know that, and so my heart is heavy for folks who are struggling with that right now and leaders who have taken on so much. But I also am so incredibly grateful for the people who are working so hard and not only the decisions they’re making, but in showing up better for all of us and being thoughtful, listening, but also taking decisive action in these moments. And so it’s mostly just gratefulness for the leaders that are out there. And just, as I always say, when I sign my books, I’m just like—and I don’t mean—I mean this—is lead on and lead strong; lead on and feel encouraged.
Al: It’s all about leadership, as John Maxwell would say. But, yeah, gosh, I feel the same way. God has gifted people with leadership, and I always love when I see people exercising it. So thanks, Rob.
And that’s Dr. Rob McKenna. And Rob, thanks for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast, and thank you for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, for investing your time for the benefit of all who’ve been listening today. Thanks, Rob.
Rob: Thank you, Al. I’m so grateful for all that BCWI does and grateful for our friendship.
Outro: Thank you for joining us on the Flourishing Culture Podcast and for investing this time in your workplace culture. If there’s a specific insight, story, or action step you’ve enjoyed, please share it with others so they can benefit, too. Please share this podcast with friends on social media, and show your support by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen.
This program is copyrighted by the Best Christian Workplaces Institute. All rights reserved. Our writer is Mark Cutshall. Our social-media and marketing manager is Solape Osoba. Remember, a healthy workplace culture drives greater impact and growth for your organization. We’ll see you again soon on the Flourishing Culture Podcast.