How Strong Leaders Stay Cool Under Fire
Written by Darren Fleming
Any business executive can run a company when times are flush and employees are happy. The true test of a strong leader is how they act in times of adversity. Questionable practices, inappropriate responses and failure to act can sink a company’s reputation and stock price.
No matter who or what is behind the problem, the burden to defend the company falls to the leader. In this precarious time, the leader must stand strong as the company becomes the target for accusations, questions and criticisms. Every word will be put under a microscope.
However, the right outcome can be achieved with a solid, consistent message. Under questioning, a good leader uses simple, genuine answers that hold up to allegations and can be adapted for any audience. The leader knows it and believes it and has the courage to stick with it until the very end. To ensure the right message rises above all the noise, a strong leader follows these three steps.
#1. Respect the Questioner
- Whether the questions come from an employee or a review board; as a good leader you should always respects the interrogator, remain patient and give the speaker undivided attention.
- Treat them as equals - Do not dismiss the questioner as if they are below you. Do not cower to them as if they are above you. Treat them as you expect to be treated, as an equal with courtesy and respect.
- Speak their language - Craft your speech patterns to keep from sounding pretentious. Modest language and a slower pace can be effective in coming across as humble and can even disarm an agitated questioner. Avoid slang and colloquialisms.
- Give them time - Don’t rush the questioner as they will perceive your actions as being evasive. If you’re caught in an impromptu meeting, schedule another time as soon as possible and promise to answer all their questions.
Robert Murdoch’s testimony in the News of the World phone hacking scandal provides a perfect example of how you can gain advantage by respecting your interrogators. Under hours of questioning from Parliament, he remained calm and courteous. Murdoch stuck to a simple message. He neither challenged his questioners, nor tried to confuse them. As a result, one of the most powerful media moguls in the world managed to come across humble to anyone watching on the TV.
#2. Control Your Emotions
Any time a leader must defend their actions, or that of someone in their company, they are put under enormous pressure. All eyes are watching. A good leader becomes self-aware; taking the time to acknowledge how emotions their alter speech and body language. They learn to self-regulate so they don’t act impulsively.
- Understand what pushes your buttons and learn how to control your reactions. Outward displays of anger, fear and frustration can be damaging to your credibility and divert attention away from the main message. Stay in control.
- Think before you speak - Never blurt out an answer when you are under stress. You never want to risk saying something wrong because you are reacting to emotional triggers. Take a sip of water or simply pause to reflect on the question before you answer.
- Don’t fall into a trap - Interviewers repeat questions to create frustration and try to force you to give contradictory responses. Be ready for it. Stick to the message.
- Never self medicate - Avoid using recreational drugs or alcohol prior to questioning. You may think it will help you relax, but the consequences can be enormous if you say something you didn’t mean. Stay alert and in control.
#3. Stand Your Ground
Under adversity, a leader will have to answer to multiple audiences: employees, co-workers, boards, auditors, investigators, reporters. Stay on message regardless of how many times you repeat yourself.
- Use different phrases - Find multiple ways to say the same thing while staying on point. How would you answer the question if you were a 70 year old? How could you make your point as a question, statement or command? Thinking of your message in these different ways will help you develop new ways of sharing your point. Use different responses in different interviews to avoid appearing like you memorised a single statement.
- Practice - Few people can speak off the cuff eloquently. Practice your message out loud and do dry runs with a trusted co-worker to find the holes. Every good presenter does this. They even do it with witnesses in court cases!
- Look them in the eye - Nothing is more powerful than eye contact. Learn it, use it.
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The world’s most powerful leaders have mastered these lessons to stay calm and confident under fire. They aren’t the only ones who use these tools. What about classic manipulators? They are excellent at convincing others that their message is valid and true.
Cycling legend Lance Armstrong used these techniques to fool hundreds-of-millions of people for many many years. After years of cheating other athletes and lying to his accusers, Armstrong finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. He came clean only after he was stripped of 7 Tour de France titles, received a lifetime ban, and was forced to step down from his foundation.
He didn’t break under interrogation. Armstrong controlled his confession like he controlled his lies; revealing only the truths he chose during an orchestrated interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Up until the very end, Armstrong never wavered from his message. No matter who questioned him, no matter how many times they asked, no matter how they pushed his buttons - he always said the same thing.
Critics described Armstrong as manipulative, controlling, hyper-aggressive, and having a huge ego. Those are the same terms used to describe some of the world’s top business executives – men and women who are revered for their confidence and strength. They can handle any line of questioning without a flinch.
When you believe strongly in your message, when you believe it is right for your company and when you have the courage to stand your ground - you can withstand any questioning. In return, others will believe you and follow you as a great leader.
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