"Using leadership skills of US Army Rangers to help key people succeed in tough times"
Increase Productivity and Profits with Leadership Tune Ups
Successful Leader, Author & Professional Speaker
The Stress Edge
Some stress is a good thing. We need stress to reach goals, get things done on time, take care of our personal needs, and protect ourselves. Some of the literature about stress describes these positive aspects, but most of the literature refers to the negative psychological, physical, and emotional impact of too much stress.
What’s So Positive About Positive Stress?
While recognizing the value of positive stress, the reports note that it can also have an adverse impact if you get too much of a good thing. When danger approaches or when we’re confronted by a high stress situation, a special part of the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system tells our bodies to produce steroid hormones which flow throughout the body and get our systems ready for action.
Major organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys, play a role in stress reaction. The systems controlled by these organs also get a jump start - metabolism, digestive, immune, and circulation. Even our skin gets involved because of the changes in circulation and immune systems.
The HPA also releases neurotransmitters and tells parts of the brain to go into overdrive. A particular part of the brain creates the emotional response of fear in the case of danger, and another part of the brain stores the event in long-term memory for future warning.
One of the neurotransmitters can actually shut down short-term memory and diminish our ability to concentrate. Logical and rational thought can be affected, and inhibitions reduced.
In the case of fear or high anxiety, rapid breathing provides more oxygen to our bodies, and more red and white blood cells are produced. An increased heart rate carries more of these blood cells and more oxygen to all organs. Our body is getting ready for action.
And that isn’t all that’s happening. When our anxiety level is up, our immune systems reroute infection fighters to our skin and other vital places, and fluids and blood are rerouted from nonessential areas. This is why our mouth gets dry and our skin takes on an unusual color - sometimes making us “as pale as a ghost.”
If fright ever caused your hair to stand on end, it was the result of your scalp tightening with the rerouting of blood. And our digestive systems shut down during periods of high anxiety; that’s why we don’t feel like eating just before giving a speech or interviewing for a new job.
The body’s rapid reaction to stress is complex as we confront and overcome obstacles throughout the day. The stressor doesn’t have to be life threatening to get a physical reaction. Something as non-threatening as making a cold call on a customer or starting up an operating line can trigger the whole series of stress reactions.
The same mental and physical responses described above occur when soldiers encounter stressful situations. Even during periods of mild stress, commanders have to remind troops to drink more water and to eat when situations permits. Extremely stressed soldiers are unable to remember some of the events that should be stored in short-term memory because of the neurotransmitters released by the HPA, which also explains why people remember different parts of the stressful event or why they remember actions in a different way.
George S. Patton and a Pocket Notebook
At one point in my Army career, I was the aide-de-camp for Major
General George S. Patton, the son of the famous WW II general. I’d worked with several high ranking officers, but that first day on the job with GSP was right at the top of the high-stress scale.
When General Patton came through the door, he met my cheery greeting with a gruff, “Come in here, Collie.” As I stood before his desk, General Patton gave me three simple projects to complete. When I turned to leave, he said,
“Come back here, Collie. Tell me what you’re going to do.”
After I repeated the three items, he told me to write them down.
My explanation that I would go to my desk and write them was
“Get your pad and come back in here. I want you to make that
to-do list right here.”
“Yes, Sir,” I responded unquestioningly, even though I was a little puzzled by his making such a big deal out of this.
After I returned and prepared the short list, General Patton said, “Now, remember this. When you come through that door, you have a pocket notebook and a pen to write what I tell you. You make a list of everything and check it off with a completion note and the date.
“Things get very busy around here. You’ll have good intentions of remembering my instructions, but when you go out that door, you’ll be distracted by dozens of things. I don’t want my instructions pushed aside by ringing phones, complaints, visitors, and anything else.
“There’s one thing you need to understand. You won’t get fired for any act of commission, but lose your job in a minute for an act of omission. Failing to do something you should have done, will get you fired. You got that?”
I responded with a definite, “Yes, Sir,” as I scribbled a note on my pad - don’t forget nothing!
General Patton knew that high stress suppresses short-term memory. I don’t think GSP cared about the effects of stress on my metabolism or my immune system, but he wanted a back up system for my short-term memory. Of course, I knew the importance of making notes during times of high stress. I’d even required my lieutenants to make notes during firefights. I had just not anticipated that working with General George Patton would bring a level of stress matched only by combat.
To overcome these same stressful situations in combat, leaders give simple, straightforward orders. Backup and redundant signals are planned to avoid tragic mistakes, for example, a commander and his radio operator make sure they both understand the circumstances for lifting friendly artillery fire as troops move into the target area. They remind each other and confirm when the orders are given.
Many business leaders have the same kind of arrangements with their administrative assistants and both of them appreciate the reminders. Practicing these types of reminders during routine times insures their effectiveness in times of crisis.
Command assignments, realistic training, and combat experience
increased my own ability to react properly in periods of high stress and taught me to use the rush of adrenalin to get the job done. Whenever I recognized anxiety and danger, I embraced the emotional shift and channeled it into excitement and energy rather than fear and worry. We were unaware of the complex systems of stress response, but we knew that a controlled response brought with it an increase in energy, sensory
awareness, strength, and stamina.
The Army starts teaching this response to new soldiers when they arrive at the US Army Reception Station. The entire process is set up to shock their systems and create as much stress as possible.
The arrival is typically at a late hour. The scene is shocking in its stark military appearance. Sergeants are yelling at the recruits before they even have a chance to respond. Hair is shaved. Uniforms are thrust at the new soldiers. And orders are issued in such a way that no one can complete what is demanded of them.
The stressful approach is calculated to get these new soldiers to perform at levels they never dreamed possible. These first few weeks of stress pay off as the training is burned into their brains for future use. A change in metabolism brings down their weight, and increased exercise strengthens their muscles. These positive stress reactions prepare soldiers to achieve more and learn faster as they gain confidence in themselves. As the next section recognizes, corporate leaders can use this kind of positive stress reaction.
Positive Stress and Corporate Life
Most companies use varying levels of this positive stress strategy. Managers confront sales people with ever-increasing sales targets. Production managers must constantly lower costs and increase production. Customer service levels are never high enough to suit management. Ever changing laws and regulations keep finance and accounting on their toes.
Those who are affected by such leadership strategies don’t always see it as positive stress but they are motivated to action and given the physical, mental, and emotional readiness to deal with the stressful situations.
None of us the threat of job loss, but such a stressor the actions needed to keep our jobs. Our reaction to the threat of a job loss can be channeled into additional training to improve performance, drive us to get assistance from other people, or even prepare for a voluntary job change. Contrary to these positive reactions, we could react negatively by decreasing our performance or becoming argumentative. It is easy to see how the negative reactions could lead to even greater stress without
any future benefit.
As stress level increase, our brains and bodies benefit from our reaction to the threatening situation. We are equipped for action, but we have to decide how to use all the extra energy. Will we work harder to get the big sale or will we use the stress as an excuse for avoiding the phone calls and effort needed to achieve?
Using Stress to Succeed
To maximize organizational and productivity, leaders must understand how to encourage stress at the right time and when to minimize stress to prevent negative stress reactions.
Stressful events have tempered each of us, making some of us more capable when performing under stress. Those who have not been prepared properly often fold under pressure and give a terrible performance.
Take, for example, a sales clerk who has lost the paperwork for an urgently needed order. The clerk is unembarrassed that he has lost the order and readily admits his error. When asked why he didn’t call the customer to reconstruct the order, he replies, “I was afraid the customer would be mad.”
The stress of the lost documents was overwhelming for the clerk. His short-term, logical thought process obscured the ultimate consequences of his actions. He couldn’t see that everyone would be more understanding of his early admission and reorder of the products than they would be with his waiting until it was too late to complete the order at all. There is a chance that good leadership can improve the clerk’s performance, but he might leave the job if he is unable or unwilling to build his stress tolerance.
Whatever their level of responsibility, those who react illogically have either suffered acute stress for a long while, or they have never been trained to use stress in a positive way. For reasons they don’t understand, they avoid seeking assistance with the situation, getting additional training, or even trying to work through the stressful process.
This type of reaction can be turned around, however. For example, professional sales people take the stress of frequent rejections and use the added energy to find alternatives. Instead of caving in to the stress, they use it to their advantage. These people will always encounter stress, so there is an advantage to channeling their stress reactions. You can help people increase their stress tolerance and channel fear into positive reactions by repeatedly exposing them to stressful situations while coaching, encouraging, and demonstrating positive stress reactions.
Sorting Them Out
Businesses and the army are faced with the same mix of people, those who have developed a stress tolerance and those who are continually overwhelmed by something as simple as a misplaced order form. The sorting process begins early in the military. Remember those recruits who were met by the demanding drill sergeants? The Army’s sorting process begins immediately; those who are capable are toughened by training that stretches them physically and emotionally. Drill sergeants have high expectations and demand perfection in the small things such as
proper wearing of the uniforms, perfect organization of equipment, and attention to details when marching. The sergeants are loud and demanding, but they know when to encourage and mentor. Every day these young soldiers achieve at higher and higher levels.
Their positive reactions to stress help them achieve things they never thought possible. Physically unfit recruits are soon conditioned to run a mile, then five miles and more. Teenagers who never picked up their own bedrooms are soon experts at cleaning, folding, and storing personal items. Surly, street-tough teens who never knew civil conversation quickly learn the benefits of saying “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.” The discipline increases confidence. The repetitive stress situations help them see that they can perform in spite of threatening circumstances. Little by little, they gain a tolerance for stress.
Some people enter the military unprepared for even the smallest amount of stress, and they are overwhelmed by the circumstances of basic training. Their reaction to stress ranges from complete emotional breakdown to misbehavior that leads to their discharge from the army. Drill sergeants and commanders are aware of this extreme possibility and prefer to guide each soldier to success, but the actions of some recruits make it impossible to work them through the system.
With some modification, corporate leaders can use similar techniques to identify those who cannot tolerate any kind of stress and guide them to jobs where less is expected of them. To do this, some companies start every new employee in jobs that are menial but important to the success of the firm. People are tested and proven capable before being promoted to positions of responsibility. Other companies test the ability of new employees by making them assistants before giving them full
responsibility. Few corporations have the luxury of shaping and
molding employees as the Army does it, but it is possible to stress test people by giving them increased responsibility, creating deadlines, and requiring higher and higher performance.
If people cannot meet expectations under stress, it makes little sense to promote them into high-stress positions. Both soldiers and corporate personnel need to function when things go wrong. Increasing stress tolerance needs to be done before the major crisis; otherwise, our people will collapse the way my mortar platoon leader did when he thought we were going to be overrun at the old French fort in Vietnam. In less severe cases, we’ll find people making serious mistakes like some of my other platoon leaders.
Here are some techniques the Army uses to increase stress tolerance or to weed out those who are unable to deal with stress.
•Establish deadlines that are just a little short of expectations. Just shorten the time a couple of days to see how employees perform and to toughen their stress tolerance somewhat. Having employees hurry up and wait is better than scrambling at the last minute to meet deadlines.
•Change the requirements and demand maximum performance in spite
of fluctuating circumstances. Employees are reassured when leaders demonstrate their control, and less tolerant employees control their stress to meet your expectations. The changes are frustrating, but people are emotionally tougher after responding to their leader’s commanding presence.
•Demand perfect administrative and logistical support for yourself and others. Showing employees that total quality management is important during stressful periods illustrates that you are in control and that you have confidence in the planned outcome. Army leaders actually expect more of their support teams during a time of crisis and accept no excuses about short notice, inadequate provisions, or understaffing.
They want results all the time, and this increases their team’s tolerance to stress.
•Permit absolutely no backstabbing or criticism of fellow workers. Requiring employees to make only positive references toward others helps build trust, and it eliminates one of the stressors as the pressure begins to grow. Army sergeants are not bashful as they order soldiers to stop criticizing others. The direct approach works best in this area because some employees are just prone to criticize someone or something all the time.
•Develop procedures, and expect everyone to comply. Everyone
feels more in control when they follow established procedures. The Army is famous for operating by the book. Knowing that there is a prescribed procedure is comforting during a time of crisis. The more soldiers see good results, the stronger they are in facing stress.
•Follow up on instructions to make sure the tasks are completed
increases positive stress to get the job done as requested and
increases tolerance to the follow up that will come during times of crisis. The Army has a saying that the jobs you follow up on are the only jobs that get done. Everyone who has too much work takes the path of least resistance and assigns lower priority to those things that will not be followed up.
•Conduct strict inspections of records and performance. This is part of your high standards and expectations. Thorough audits identify problems and give you opportunities to compliment team members. Both your records and your people will be more prepared for stress-filled events. Every unit in the Army is subject to a major annual readiness inspection. Those who don’t follow regulations in keeping records and completing training suffer the consequences at inspection time. Any amount of time they saved in shortcutting the system is lost as they work long hours getting ready for these major inspections. The shortcuts eventually increase stress.
•Require ongoing training and refresher courses - and test everyone’s knowledge. One of the greatest stress controllers is being prepared. Well-trained people are also more tolerant of stress. Every unit in the Army has an annual training schedule for essential items. Part of the schedule is refresher training; part is training in new subjects. Some corporations maintain a similarly rigorous training schedule, but other
companies see training as an expense instead of an investment. Less trained employees are less tolerant of stress, and their skills fall behind the competitor who has an aggressive training program.
•Keep raising the bar of expectation in all areas. Continuously raising standards adds positive pressure and improves performance accompanied by recognition for work well done. Without the recognition; however, the higher standards contribute to a negative stress situation. As with the Army, ask more of your people during routine situations, and they will be better prepared in the face of obstacles.
Those who can handle stress continue to seek out challenges and are rewarded with greater responsibilities. Those who cannot handle increased stress are likely to be relegated to less stressful positions.
Listen to Your Own Advice
When stress runs high, people make mistakes and act illogically. In the 1980s and 1990s, the media carried example after example of good people doing bad things. These people were just as smart as they ever were, but stress had dumbed down that special part of their brains that gave them control over their actions. Some of these people knew they shouldn’t do certain illegal or immoral things, but stress weakened their inhibitions and made them incapable of changing their behavior.
It’s one thing to prepare subordinate leaders for the stress they will confront, but you must also consider your own stress tolerance and whether you have what it takes to lead. If you fail at controlling your own stress, it will control you as you climb the corporate ladder and on your way down. The opportunities for error are great when your mind is clouded by involuntary physical and emotional responses to stress.
If you recognize that your logical thinking is out of line, you should take action to control the stress instead of waiting for your name to show up in the media because of some temporary misjudgment. If you repeatedly do things that you know are improper, get some professional advice, or you risk wrecking your career and the lives of those around you.
Don’t be one of the great ones who are dragged down by stress.
Understanding how to control the benefits and hazards of stress gives you the edge in routine matters and times of crisis. Keep in mind the ways you can use positive stress to prepare people and help them achieve, but also remember that cumulative stress can undo your efforts. You need to strike a balance between the stress you create to get good results and the stress that diminishes performance.
In Chapter 4 we’re going to take a look at how you can help your
employees hold up in times of crisis and how the Army uses
post-battle evaluations to see what went well or what needs more
Winning under Fire
Turn Stress into Success the US Army Way