3 simple questions to help you lead under pressure

lessons from natural disasters and professional sport

Elizabeth McNaughton (disaster recovery expert, co-founder of  Hummingly and co-author of  Leading in Disaster Recovery: A Companion through the Chaos) and Bart de Vries (founder and physiotherapist at Limber, personal workspace behaviour expert and ex pro hockey player) share their insights on leadership under pressure.

Right now, around the world, it’s game on—leaders are rising to the challenges of COVID – 19.

They can’t do this alone. Rising or falling depends on asking the right questions of the right people at the right time in the right way.

As a leader, the first questions you need to ask are of yourself. The right way to do this is with radical honesty and kindness, and the help of trusted people close to you.

Bart and I have found ways to cope, lead and perform under pressure—the highs, the lows, the burn out, the recovery. Although we come from different disciplines, we have found some common questions that help leaders of all kinds perform under pressure.

Here are the first three questions we would like to share to support the self-reflection needed to ground leaders during times like this.

Are you a martyr or a professional?

In the sports world this question would be are you an amateur or a professional? If you are a martyr you will give everything you have got, you will leave nothing in the tank, you will be the first to arrive and the last to leave. You will not stop.  You will be valuable but you will see yourself as indispensable. Overtime there will be impacts on your physical and mental health and your relationships will suffer.  You will start to make poor decisions and become cynical.

If you are a professional, you too will give it your all, but you will have an eye on the long game. You will see the effort required not in days and weeks but in months and even years.  You understand that peak performance and growing your capacity also requires recovery time. You will plan for this and you will acquire the resources to make this happen. You will see yourself as part of a team that can step in and up for each other.  You will lead from a calmer and steadier place. 

Do you have a personal board?

In disasters and sport, we learnt that having the right people around you is everything. We also learnt that hope is not a method. You need to set yourself up for a heavy load, exhausting expectations and raging stress hormones. A way to do this to create your own personal board of ‘performance partners’. Find three or four people who you trust and know well and say, ‘I’m in a tough situation. Can we touch base regularly? It’d be really helpful if you could keep an eye on my wellbeing, help me maintain perspective and encourage me to bring my best self as this goes on.’ 

Are you leveraging your body for performance?

As a leader during COVID-19 your first responsibility is to keep your body well. The number one thing leaders need right now is a strong immune system. Your body is amazing and it’s your friend in times like this. The jittery tummy, the sweat, the pounding heart that you experience under pressure – this is your body supporting you to rise to the occasion.  Your body is diverting energy to keep you going for short, survival bursts of energy. But this energy is being diverted from functions like keeping your immune system strong. However, this is an area where you can take control and help your body perform. Moderate exercise is the key, hard enough so you sweat but can still have a conversation.

Try these two things:

  1. Throw some ‘movement snacks’ into your day for example, do squats waiting for the toast, push-ups waiting for a call etc.
  2. Choose a short walking loop around your neighbourhood. Make it around a 25-minute walk, then gradually try to do it a bit quicker by jogging some parts.

On the flip side, finding ways to relax is equally important. 

Try these:

  1. A hot bath can be wonderful

  2. Testing out a mindfulness app

  3. Purely focussing on your food as you eat it (all the flavours, textures and colours for example)

The quality of what you put in is what you get out. Keep a close eye on alcohol, coffee and sugar as these are not the friends they might seem. Swap the sugar craving for fruit and nuts. Swap the beer or wine for a big glass of water. I know, it sounds boring but trust us , you'll feel way more capable to make better decisions in the stressful moments coming your way.

Be kind to yourself and others

Above all else, remember that in times of crisis we do the best we can with the information and resources we have at the time—so be kind to yourself and to others.


The cards threaded throughout this blog are from Hummingly’s Doing Well card deck. They are a practical tool that will empower you and your team to do well when under pressure.