Great Leadership in a World of Ongoing Duress

As I sat in the conference room of one of the largest companies in the world, the board members and the CEO and chairman were nodding their heads in agreement to several statements written on a white board in front of us. We had spent the last two days going through a process my colleagues and I facilitate at the beginning of every CEO succession effort—identifying all of the strategic challenges facing the business, and thus the skills the CEO’s successor would most need to thrive. The list of challenges, any of which would mean a massive, fundamental shift in the company’s ability to make money, included items such as these:

  • Nationalistic movements in countries where our production is based threaten to renegotiate our contracts or annex our facilities outright, threatening 70 percent of our supply lines.
  • Political leadership is proposing dramatic new taxes on our industry that would radically reduce our profitability.
  • Our product is being called a threat to the environment. Therefore, much of our customer base is calling for a sharp reduction of our product’s use or its outright replacement within the next decade.

All of the threats on this list of doom were highly plausible. Was this company in trouble? It was. It also happens to be one of the most profitable companies in the history of private enterprise.

The CEO remarked nonchalantly as the group stared at the list, “That looks about right.”

That’s when the full impact of what I’d been observing at companies over the last decade hit me: no matter how successful, thriving, or seemingly secure any business appears, there are no longer periods of calm seas for leaders in any industry. Leaders today must be at home navigating a ship through forty-foot waves—oceans that will never again be serene—and still be able to guide their crew safely from port to port. In other words, they must continue to be highly effective, particularly in an environment of extraordinary, ongoing stress. They must be better under pressure.

A broader statistic clarifies this point about the new operating environment: more than half the companies that were industry leaders in 1955 were still industry leaders in 1990. Yet, more than two-thirds of market leaders in 1990 no longer existed by 2004.1 Bethlehem Steel, Woolworths, Arthur Andersen—all corporate institutions that endured for a century or more—have disappeared in the last ten years.

What kind of leader does it take to help companies survive—and thrive—in the midst of such a fundamental shift in the operating environment? What qualities make leaders able to sail through the rolling ocean that is the new normal, and bring their people with them? And how can leaders develop those attributes?

To perform their best in precisely such an atmosphere of multiple ill-defined and ongoing threats to the enterprise’s survival, a leader must possess a highly unusual set of attributes that often run counter to natural human behavior. This book, written for leaders and aspiring leaders, will explore those attributes in detail—and show you how you can begin to develop them yourself. These attributes also add up to a new definition of leadership. The definition takes into account the way that all individuals—leaders and the led alike—are influenced by those around them in their quest for success.

Read the full first chapter of Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others in PDF format


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