A few years ago, I was on a small regional jet when we smelled smoke. The pilot barked orders into the speaker to put out any lighted cigarette immediately. As it turned out, no one was smoking — the alarm was the result of a faulty smoke detector. But the pilot's tone transmitted fear, and that fear spread through the cabin.
On another flight, the pilot announced that there was a problem with the plane's hydraulics and that they had to consult with Boeing to decide the best way to get us on the ground. The second situation was far more serious and involved two failed landing attempts before we finally touched down safely. But I will never forget how calm everyone was because the confidence in our pilot's voice was contagious.
One of the most critical tasks leaders have in today's stressful business environment is to channel their emotions and reactions in a way that does not hinder their people's progress. Every great leader has "selves" that are not his or her best, selves that in particular contexts can emerge and dominate. To combat this, you need to place the needs of the organization and its people above your own impulses. While this has always been a truism about great leadership, in our world of repetitive volatility, a leader's ability to manage his or her own internal experience around stress and use it to focus his or her team is crucial.
The most effective means of doing this is to spend time understanding and making explicit why what you and your organization do every day matters. By holding in the forefront of your mind your company's higher purpose, internal management of these inevitable — and momentary — times of crisis become much more manageable. Your mind and emotions will naturally link to this more important cause, and as a side effect, you will find that reactivity (fear, outburst, etc.) will be sharply reduced. This is why the clear definition of your company's noble purpose becomes so central.
Consider this: Professors Héfer Bembenutty and Stuart A. Karabenick examined the differences in the thought patterns of individuals who were strong at tolerating frustration and those who were not. They discovered a critical causal mechanism behind their behaviors. People who focused their thinking on the object of immediate interest, such as a desire for the immediate pleasure of a sugary snack, were far less likely to hold off on giving in to their impulse. But the small fraction of people who could delay their gratification actually interpreted the situation in very different terms. Rather than viewing the treat as an opportunity to experience pleasure, they defined the situation as a challenge of willpower. In other words, they reframed the act to be symbolic of their overall willpower and strength of commitment. Those values were much more meaningful to them than the immediate reward of a sugary treat. In this way, they were able to endure the wait.
The same lessons are applied by the most effective CEOs, who check their own impulses — and in turn, those of their people — by reframing challenges through the lens of their commitment to the company's mission. Consider Dave Dillon, the CEO of Kroger, one of the largest grocery chains in the world and one that's been in Dillon's family for three generations. It was facing unprecedented, very real peril. Large discounters (most significantly Walmart) had entered the grocery business and intended to dominate it. Dillon had to find a way to help his people face this threat in a way that refocused them on their daily jobs. Winning this war wasn't going to be won in a day or even a month, but through an ongoing discipline of outworking and outperforming their new formidable competitor.
Many other businesses that hear that Walmart is entering their space simply give up competing with the mammoth companies' proven efficiencies and relentless denomination of various markets. Instead of allowing panic to penetrate either him or his team, Dillon looked to subservience to purpose and commitment to the Kroger mission:
While I don't think you can take somebody who's had an awful day and turn it into a miracle day, I do think that a smile, a nice word at the checkout counter, somebody in the supermarket who helps your day go a little easier — I think gestures like that can go a long way to the lives in our society better. We as a company play a critical role in the moral of this country. And we can't lose sight of that.
Dillion's team faced the Walmart threat head-on and continues to dominate the grocery market to this day.
Subservience to purpose allows leaders to redefine their responsibilities and those of their people in terms of the crucial role the person plays in pushing forward a larger mission. In times of frustration, this purpose can help leaders check their disruptive impulses, and through the contagiousness of leadership, inspire workers to reframe petty frustrations or fatigue into a more meaningful motivation. In today's environment of ongoing duress, the ability to sustain this focus and inspiration has become more critical than ever in differentiating organizations that succeed from those that fail.