Leading through crisis, part 2: The CEO’s guide to relaxation

By Leah Polakoff

Stress and pressure is something all CEOs are extremely familiar with, but letting pressure get to you can become a big drag on your company. What’s more, you’re probably most stressed at times of crisis, when it’s essential to keep a level head and power through.

Once you’ve nailed down the game-plan to overcome the crisis, set aside some time to manage your own pressure.

“We found that for the vast majority of people, they take a haphazard approach to pressure, which goes to say they don’t have a game plan. They don’t have a well-developed skill,” says Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry, co-author of Performing Under Pressure.

When you don’t develop this skill set, you’ve handicapped yourself, Pawliw-Fry says. When under pressure, the ability to think, retrieve memory and make decisions is limited. “If you can manage your brain under pressure well, it’s like your operating system,” he says. “And right now [under pressure], you can’t put in whatever software to be more effective.”

Start building your skill set by visualizing yourself at your best. Ask yourself, “When have I been at my best? When have I been able to say the right thing with a client?” This is called the intentional approach, when you’re intentionally tricking your brain into believing that moment at your best is right now.

One way Harry Thomasian, partner at Ernst & Young, practices the intentional approach is in his golf game. “Golf is a very big stress reliever,” he says. “But you can take some of what you learn on the golf course and use that in your business life.”

When stepping up to the tee, visualize yourself sinking a hole-in-one. With that image in mind, a vision of you succeeding, you are more likely to do so, therefore giving yourself a better chance at actually getting a hole-in-one.

Trick your brain into coping with pressure

“The brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and what we’re thinking. It takes its command as if everything is real,” Pawliw-Fry says. “So if you’re imagining you’re at your best, the brain listens and commands the whole body to get into a place of good neurochemistry and good performance. So many people walk into this pressure moment thinking the worst, and their brain takes that in. The brain is listening.”

Everyone mentally rehearses before entering a pressure situation. But before you walk into another crisis, ask yourself, “Are you going to go by design or by default? Are you going to do it haphazardly or do it intentionally?” And if you do it intentionally and by design, Pawliw-Fry says, all of a sudden you’re taking charge a little more. Your body and brain are then going to be ready to perform.

Pawliw-Fry also recommends reassuring yourself that not every situation is an all-or-nothing situation. The truth is, he emphasizes, that you have many opportunities. Don’t inflate the importance of winning to the point that you begin to lose perspective.

“This is one out of many opportunities,” Pawliw-Fry says. “We can start to see this moment not as a crisis or a threat, but as an opportunity to grow.”

Editor’s note: Looking for part 1 of our “Leading through Crisis” series? Find it here.


Need some ideas on how to relax? Here’s how other leaders spend their free time:

“I play guitar in a part-time blues/rock/jazz band, so at the end of a long day of PR client meetings, calls, writing and traffic, I go home, break out my favorite Stratocaster, crank my stage amp up about halfway and just jam for about an hour. Best therapy in the world and a great way to meet your neighbors.”

Robb Deigh, principal of RDC Public Relations, LLC, Fairfax, VA 

“I spend 12 hours a day on my feet running a big kitchen, so at the end of a busy week, I really love the outdoors. I am a big hiker in the Shenandoah Valley. I really like to soak up the fresh air and scenery and get away from the concrete, the buzz of work and the crowds. Sometimes I go out there for eight or nine hours or even stay out overnight. Love it!”

Sean Melton, executive chef at Brio Tuscan Grille, Fair Oaks, VA 

“When I’m not in the OR, I can usually be found on the tennis court or in the boxing ring in the early morning or evening. I like the similarities between the two sports in regards to the mental toughness and the training required. It helps me stay in shape, reduce stress and jump-start my day.”

Dr. Steven Davis, founder of Davis Cosmetic Plastic Surgery, Cherry Hill, NJ

“I depend heavily on my vacation time to manage stress. I completely disappear for two weeks each summer, and I’ll take a day or two here and there throughout the year when I feel the need arising. The crucial part is that when I’m away from the office, I’m really away from the office. I trust my team to keep things running, and they don’t contact me during that time unless the end of the world is nigh. This down time helps both my body and mind reset themselves, and I always return to the office with renewed vigor and fresh enthusiasm for our business.”

Gina F. Rubel, founder and CEO of Furia Rubel Communications, Bucks County, PA

“In my spare time, I love to move my body as much as possible. Any activity that allows me to sweat, feel strong and powerful helps me remain aligned both in business and my personal life. My favorite thing to do is hot yoga. Hot yoga allows me to relieve stress by giving me a reboot, a new perspective so I go back to work revived and ready to tackle anything that comes my way. I find that creativity is boosted, and I’m reminded of lucky I am to create the life I want by serving others.”

Lisa Consiglio Ryan, CEO of Whole Health Designs, Annapolis, MD

“I love to cook, hunt deer and birds, walk on the beach near my shore house, ride motorcycles, pray, read (newspapers, mysteries and military history and strategy), listen to classical music and, best of all, play with my grandson and granddaughter. These … activities help me get distance from [a] crisis, and then with that distance [I can] creatively and constructively address the crisis.”

Doug Halvorsen, president and CEO of The Evergreens, Moorestown, NJ