How Leaders Learn Not to Panic


If you’ve ever flown in a small plane when the pilot cuts the engine to practice a stall, you know what it feels like to lose altitude really fast. It’s terrifying and nauseating. That’s what it felt like watching the market’s wild ride yesterday.

But I stayed calm, as I’m sure other seasoned executives and business veterans with plenty of blood-curdling crises under their belts did. That’s because we’ve learned how not to panic. Here’s how it works.

You’re probably wondering why in the world a pilot would stall a plane on purpose. The problem is that stalls can happen around takeoff and landing when the plane’s so close to the ground that the recovery routine has to be automatic – from muscle memory – to prevent a crash. So pilots have to practice it over and over.

If they panic, it’s all over. Which is sort of ironic, since fear is actually a survival mechanism. But if you’re a pilot, your response to fear can actually kill you.

It’s the same in business, especially leadership. Practice and experience keep you from panicking in three ways:

They provide the same sort of “muscle memory” that allows you to stay calm and call the shots under pressure.

They give you confidence by way of that little voice in your head that says: “Don’t freak out; you know you can do this.”

And they give you courage to face your fear.

I can’t tell you how important it is for executives and business leaders to maintain calm in a time of crisis. Every career has them and the higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more frequent and critical they become.

When you’ve been around long enough, you’ll have survived plenty of episodes where things go terribly wrong. That’s actually a good thing. Those experiences will serve you well down the road. I would go as far as to say that your ability to maintain calm and make smart decisions when all hell breaks loose is a critical success factor for any manager or leader.

Here are three examples of the dozens of crises I’ve experienced or observed along the way, usually too close for comfort:

In the 90s, I ran marketing for a publicly-traded PC microprocessor company that had not one, but two hair-raising episodes where a bug was found in our chips. Those were hands-down the toughest crises I ever faced. Not only was it critical for us not to panic, we also had to keep our customers, our distributors, our investors, and of course the media from panicking.

Talk about juggling key stakeholders. It was no easy trick but we somehow managed to pull it off and avoid a brand meltdown.

I once resigned as the head of marketing and sales of a late stage startup just hours after the head of operations also quit. That was a rough day for our CEO, who had to explain to the board and his employees how he lost his two top executives overnight.

And that was late 2000 when the dot-com bubble was bursting, mind you. But the guy didn’t panic. He built a new management team, and four years later successfully took that company public. Today it has about a $2 billion market cap.

Towards the end of my corporate career I ran marketing for an infamous public technology company that had a nasty reputation for being litigious. We had lost a big patent infringement case and had our hands full with the appeal when the Federal Trade Commission announced it was suing us.

It definitely looked as if our chickens had come home to roost.

The problem is that litigation takes months or years so you’re constantly being hounded and hammered by Wall Street, the press, and high profile customers and partners who don’t want to see their precious brands dragged through the mud. And of course you have to reassure employees that you’ve got it covered when in fact you don’t.

In the end, our legal team won both the appeal and the FTC case. Good thing they didn’t panic.

There’s an old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.” While it sounds like a blessing it’s also thought to be a curse. Perhaps I have been cursed to “live in interesting times,” but I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s a blessing. All those experiences taught me that panic is not just pointless be seriously counterproductive.

I’ve often described the feeling of managing a crisis as like being on autopilot. You just go into some sort of crisis mode and you somehow know what to do. It’s a combination of muscle memory, confidence and courage at work. But without practice and experience, that never happens.

May you live in interesting times, and I mean that in a good way.