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How to keep your cool when the heat’s on

4 min read


At last, we know the truth about President Barack Obama’s heritage: He’s Javanese.

Culturally speaking, of course.

According to Janny Scott, author of “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” a biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, the Javanese attribute the president’s coolness under fire to his upbringing in Indonesia. (Java is its largest island.) As Scott said on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” young Barry, as Obama was then called, might have honed his composure in reaction to being teased mercilessly by classmates, some even throwing stones at him. His “crime”? Being darker-skinned than other children. Obama endured.

Javanese regard such composure as a symbol of strength, and so do I, though no person I know would condone the harsh treatment Obama endured as a child. Obama might have gained insight into what it means to rise above the fray as a child, but it takes some of us years to develop or, in the case of hotheads, not develop at all.

Composure is a desired leadership attribute. I have often told the story of battalion commanders on the scene of a major fire. Amid the smoke and fire and heat, commanders radiate sheer calmness. Emotions might be roiling inside, but outwardly they are cool as a cucumber.

Their coolness leads to something I call the clarity to see complexity. By not succumbing to a maelstrom of chaos, they keep their heads clear to think through the possibilities. It is noted that during preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, President Obama, amid the tension, radiated calmness. That is a leader’s job. Giving into emotion would be counterproductive. One, it would frighten subordinates, and two, it would muddy the mind’s ability to focus on the options.

For some leaders, composure is a birthright. They take to coolness like a duck to water. It comes as second nature. For others, it must be cultivated — and not easily. As an executive coach, I urge executives to learn to control their emotions through a few simple techniques.

  • Breathe deeply. In the heat of the moment, there is a tendency to breathe rapidly. So take a deep breathe. Feel the breath come into your lungs. Exhale, then repeat a few times. It slows things down.
  • Relax your facial muscles. Tension is evident on our faces. So be conscious of how you look. Rub your cheeks and flex them. Smile if appropriate, as a means of reassuring others.
  • Keep your voice lower. When tension rises, people speak more quickly and with more emotion. A leader’s job is to keep calm. So speak slowly and at a lower pitch. Others will notice and maybe follow suit.

And here’s one technique a colleague of mine, Donald Altman, a psychotherapist and author of “The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness,” taught me. Raise your arms and bring your hands together. Join your fingertips together. Then close your eyes and think about the stress you are feeling. Press your fingers together tightly, then hold it. After a moment, begin to release pressure slowly, starting with your upper arms and ending with your fingertips. You will feel the physical tension — and maybe the stress — ebb away.

Remaining composed under pressure is not the answer to all leadership challenges, but for my money, I would rather follow an executive who keeps it together than one who is wild-eyed and restlessly pacing.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership-development consultant, executive coach, author and speaker. In 2011, Leadership Gurus International ranked Baldoni No. 11 on its list of the world’s top leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of nine books on leadership, including “Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results” and “Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.” Readers are welcome to visit Baldoni’s website,