John Addison: How Great Leaders Stay Calm

UPDATED: April 11, 2016
PUBLISHED: April 11, 2016

Throughout my new book, Real Leadership, I talk about the importance of developing a peaceful core to weather the uncertainties coming your way. A business leader must be the eye of the storm, the human equivalent of Alka-Seltzer: a central calming influence that is even more critical when an organization goes through transition, challenges or change.

Related: Rohn: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

Staying calm during difficult times means you have to forgo the blame game. When there is a problem in this country or something bad happens, most of our political leaders immediately begin to blame everyone else. I can’t help visualizing what would happen if these people ran a railroad and had to deal with a derailment. I can see one guy helping people out of the wreckage and 99 standing around asking, “Whose fault was it?”—behavior that’s the opposite of leadership.

Instead, a strong leader tends to take a long view of the problem, putting it into perspective. One of my first management jobs in the 1980s was running the licensing division of a financial services company. A data processing screw-up caused the licenses of 20,000 life insurance agents to not be renewed in California, our biggest market. The management team showed up in my office in total panic—you’d have thought the Hindenburg crashed again. My response: “As a result of what happened, how many people are dead? None. So we do not have a crisis. We have a problem.” I got on the phone to California, we solved the problem, and life went on.

As I’ve always said, if you can fix it by writing a check or working extra-hard, it’s not a crisis. It’s a situation.

Still, tough situations disrupt organizations, causing stress—something leaders can offset when they are accessible. During chaos, the first impulse may be to lock yourself in your office in meetings to deal with problems. But everyone in an organization knows when something’s up—there are no real secrets—and the leader needs to be out there talking to people.

Great leaders are not detached from their organizations. They have an innate feel for what’s going on. They are close to the people on the front lines, and they act as the emotional thermostats of their organizations through constant, day-to-day communication. Leaders circulate. They drop by someone’s office to chat; they eat lunch in company cafeterias; they talk to people in hallways.

They are available.

A leader who inspires confidence and calm has to be consistent in terms of goals and priorities, with a clear view of the horizon. He or she must know where the organization needs to go, regardless of the obstacles in its way.

You can be calm without losing your intensity or failing in your obligation to make things happen. After all, leadership is a verb, it’s an action, and it means working harder than anyone else. The leader who can find that calm center in times of great challenge will prevail through focus, perspective and a firm grasp of the organization’s mission.

Or, as Winston Churchill said, “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

Related:John Addison: The 5 A’s of Leading Through Adversity


This article appears in the May 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.