Three Simple Steps for Making the Right Call Under Fire

Three Simple Steps for Making the Right Call Under Fire

To know how to respond in high-stress situations, you've got to start by getting into flow – just like a professional athlete.

Have you ever noticed how some bosses can be totally oblivious to their bad behavior?

For example, take one of my clients, who I’ll call Daniel. His business prowess was undeniable, and he displayed great talent at “managing up” within his organization. Problem was, he wasn’t so great managing down or sideways. Superiors loved his dynamic “get-things-done” style just as much as they respected his razor-sharp business acumen. But his juniors were suffering under his command, intimidated by his loud and combative manner. People hated working for him.

Yet oddly enough, I’d soon discover that this senior executive had a heart of gold, and truly wanted to do good by his employees and the company – even as he continued to alienate people left and right.

Sound familiar? You might’ve known leaders who behave in similar ways. Maybe you’ve even gotten feedback that you yourself sometimes display these tendencies. But, of course, that’s the last way you want to present yourself at work. You don’t want to be that boss. Not only because it’s off-putting, but more importantly, because it makes you less effective as a leader.

Still, sometimes your temper gets triggered. Or maybe you get uppity and know-it-all when you should stay curious. Or maybe you just lose your patience.

This kind of behavior can sneak up on you and take over without you even noticing. Then afterward you think, “What a minute – that’s not how I wanted to sound! Can I please get a do-over?” Even worse, you might not always realize how harshly you came across at all.

The Power of Heightened Awareness

High-performing athletes (corporate, Olympic, or otherwise) function at their best when they’re in flow – a state of relaxed, yet energized, alertness. They’re focused, yet calm. They’re aware of themselves, the people around them, and the situation. This heightened awareness enables them to see challenges more clearly, and to act more decisively. In short, it makes them more effective.

The way top-performing people get into flow – that state of heightened awareness – is by practicing three steps: Pause, perspective, and choice.

These simple but powerful steps allow top performers to overpower unproductive tendencies and take leadership action that’s dramatically more successful.

I’ve seen the powerful effects of heightened awareness time and again during my 20-plus years in executive leadership roles. I’ve witnessed this flow state in dozens of professionals as a CFO at global powerhouses Microsoft and Novartis, as well as in my work with senior leaders through my leadership development and executive coaching firm. The leaders who master it increase their effectiveness exponentially, and quickly accelerate their success.

How It Works

Former U.S. Navy SEAL Leif Babin says the secret to effective battlefield leadership is to “…remain calm, step back from [your] immediate emotional reaction, and determine the greatest priority for the team.” His shorthand for this is: “Relax. Look around. Make a call.”

Leif is on the right track. To show up as the best version of yourself under fire in the business world, you need to deliberately create mental space that will open your eyes to greater perspective; then, make decisions based on what truly matters most.  

Here’s how this works.

Step 1: Pause

The first step is to pause and create mental stillness. This is surprisingly easy to do. Silently say to yourself, “Pause,” and then notice your breath. By doing so, you send the message to your brain that it’s time to suspend internal dialogue and mental gyrations. Continue to notice your breath for a few moments, both in-breaths and out-breaths. You don’t have to do this for long. Noticing even a few breaths will help still your mind immensely.

Step 2: Perspective

In step two, mentally remove yourself from the situation and take stock of what’s going on inside and outside of your own thoughts and emotions. This is sometimes called “going to the balcony” – in other words, observing yourself and others as if you were watching the action from a balcony seat. Silently say to yourself, “Perspective.” Notice your knee-jerk reactions, thoughts, and feelings. Pay attention to the people you’re with, tuning in to them and the vibe in the room. Consider the circumstances.  

Step 3: Choice

In the final step, silently say to yourself, “Choice.” Then, noticing your internal state, choose the response you believe would be best suited to the situation. For example, you might decide to dial up your energy, or perhaps to tone it down instead. To help you orient this decision, consider your personal values (what truly matters most to you, such as relationships), as well as the values and goals of your organization (like teamwork or innovation). Visualize yourself responding to your choice, then take action.

Daniel’s Happy Ending

In my coaching work with Daniel, I helped him develop the ability to pause and observe himself in various situations, then make smart choices. As he became more and more aware of himself and his surroundings, he began to choose how he wanted to show up in different business settings, then act on his positive intentions. He later told me, “I learned to visualize my meetings beforehand, and consider how to purposefully act.”

A few months into our coaching engagement, I checked with Daniel’s boss to see if she’d noticed any changes in him. She excitedly reported that Daniel’s behavior had immensely improved – along with his effectiveness. By applying the practices I’d taught him, Daniel was connecting with people like never before, and his levels of collaboration were reaching new heights. He told me how much happier he felt, both at work and at home. He also noted with relief that he no longer felt compelled to act like the “tough guy” all the time. Just a few months later, Daniel was tapped to take on new responsibilities at his company, continuing his high-growth career path.

It’s Time to Look in The Mirror

As you examine your own behaviors and how you show up for your team, you may find it difficult to grapple with possibly showing up badly. After all, that’s not your intention, is it?

My challenge for you is twofold. First, take a conscious step outside yourself, and try to visualize – as objectively as you can – how you’re coming across to your colleagues. The way they perceive you may be very different from how you perceive yourself – and that’s okay. Their perspectives are real and valid, too.

Second, apply this approach to your interactions with those colleagues – pause, perspective, choice. It’ll take practice, but just like any behavior shift, it’s a matter of forming a new habit that overtakes the previous, negative one.

And the first step is awareness. As soon as you take that first conscious step outside your own awareness and try to see the whole interaction from the top down, your world – both at work and in your personal life – will begin to transform.

Sign Up For My Articles

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Related Posts

How Overloaded Executives Can Make Time for What Matters Most

The price of cutting ourselves short can be very high, but the good news is that we don’t have to live that way forever, even if that’s our usual habit.

Read More

What to Do When Your Boss is the Devil Himself

Although it might be natural to want to get away from a nasty boss, in my experience the best course of action is something very different.

Read More

Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback

Even though it is not always easy, when you offer and receive feedback with genuine intent, it can be a life-changing gift.

Read More

What Craig the IT Guy Taught Me About Life, Death, and Work-Life Balance

Virtually all my clients say that they want improved work-life balance. Here are four tips from the WW work-life balance initiative I led at Microsoft.

Read More

Values Are The Key to Making Tough Choices

I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, our values serve as our best compass.

Read More

How Top Execs Solve Their Toughest Leadership Challenges

Leaders want counsel from someone who understands where they’re coming from, and who has the skill to push them to create real shift in their thinking.

Read More

The One Simple Phrase That Ensures You Get the Results You Expect

Leaders don't always get the results they expect, but here's how to do it through a simple phrase.

Read More

The Four Keys to Earning Your Team’s Trust

Some leaders try to exert their influence through their authority, but great leaders create true followership by continually earning their people’s trust.

Read More

The True Meaning of Courage Isn’t What You Think

True courage is not the absence of fear, a mindset, or even an emotion. It's a principle of action.

Read More

Four Simple Ways to Awaken Your Focus and Concentration at Work

Here are four ways to increase your leadership effectiveness at work by cultivating the skill of consciousness.

Read More

You're Not an Imposter

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, the first step is to tame your monkey mind.

Read More

What to Do When a Rising Star's Team Can't Stand Him

To learn to play well with others, this corporate tyrant had to gain a “view from the balcony.”

Read More

Knowledge Is Good – But It’s the Enemy of Great

How openness to being wrong serves as a force multiplier for the smartest leaders

Read More

To Become More Successful, Open Your Eyes to True Success

There are levels of winning beyond just winning.

Read More

Leadership Doesn’t Happen by Accident—It’s a Choice

The difference between being a leader and being a victim starts with mindset.

Read More

How A ‘Work Persona’ Undercuts Your Long-Term Success

Your genuine self is more effective than your fake self. Learning to dial into your talents and values is the surest way to speed up your career growth.

Read More

How My Personality Almost Wrecked My Career (And How I Fixed It)

The behaviors that limit us are often rooted in the same traits that've made us successful.

Read More

Authenticity at Work: Is There Such a Thing as “Too Real?”

Choosing authenticity at work can be a risky move. Here’s how to know when it’s right.

Read More

Three Reasons You’re Not Getting Promoted (And How To Fix Them)

Conquer your career derailers and get back on track.

Read More

What I Learned From (Almost) Getting Fired As CFO Of Microsoft North America

Yesterday’s recipe for success isn’t enough to master today’s challenges.

Read More

How My Near-Death Experience Sparked The Biggest Career Change Of My Life

When life hangs by a thread, we realize what really matters most.

Read More

The Unexpected Combination For Mastering Executive Presence

Confidence alone will only take you so far. To get to the top, you need humility too.

Read More

C-Suite Exec: How To Become Your Company’s Moral Compass

Contrary to what execs might expect, adopting a work persona limits their ability to serve as the moral compasses their companies often so desperately need.

Read More

Your Team Doesn’t Deliver? Here’s the Reason Why.

Practice this simple two-step technique to start getting the results you expect.

Read More

The 4 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Self-Aware Leadership

Or, Why My Team Used To Hate My Guts — And How I Won Them Back 

Read More

What COVID-19 Taught Me About Freedom, Crisis, and Myself

How to Stay At Your Best During A Pandemic 

Read More

How To Stop Failing At Scaling — And Start Winning At Delegating

The 4 Keys to Effective Delegation

Read More

My Top 5 Practices for Leadership During Global Crisis (Or Anytime)

25 Years Condensed Into 5 Incisive Practices 

Read More

I’ve Been Complicit In Systemic Racism. Here’s What I’m Doing To Change.

4 Actions Whites Can Take Today to Start Dismantling Systemic Racism

Read More

Stalled Career? You May Be Overestimating Your Self-Perspective

Use Performance Journaling to Gain “Executive Presence” 

Read More

If Money Is Your Main Motive, You Probably Won’t Get Promoted

Find Your Promotion “Sweet Spot” In Three Steps

Read More

Secretly Wishing for a Different Career? How To Turn Your Passion Into Reality

Managing Your Own Value Polarities Can Make That Dream Job Possible

Read More

What’s Love Got To Do With The Workplace?

How (And Why) Great Leaders Practice Love In The Workplace

Read More

Start The Year With This Mind-Opening Leadership Exercise

The Annual 3-Step Self-Awareness Checkup

Read More

Why True Leaders Never Blame Others (Or Circumstances)

Read More

Why You May Be A Worse Leader Than You Think

It’s Time To Address Your Blind Spots 

Read More


Executive Coaching

Team Coaching

John assesses teams through qualitative and quantitative measures, then helps you build the path to high performance.

Build your Team
Executive Coaching

Executive Coaching

John's coaching draws on more than 25 years in senior leadership roles at Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak.

Maximize Your Potential
Leadership Assessments

Leadership Assessments

As a Certified Practitioner of the Leadership Circle, John utilizes best-in-class tools to assess and develop you and your team.

Learn More