We had the recent pleasure of attending a lecture through Chicago Ideas Week – a local TED talk-type conference that brings together innovators and inspiring speakers to share big ideas with the aim of making big things happen. The event we attended was called Leading Under Pressure, where five speakers offered stories and advice for getting results when facing constant setbacks. We heard from Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Alexa Clay, Author and Innovation Strategist; Desiree Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing Company; General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus, retired Four-Star General of the United States Military and Partner & Chairman of KKR Global Institute; and Jessica Yellin, former Chief White House Correspondent for CNN.

The diversity of experiences these leaders bring – from battle fields to picket lines – had us curious about what messages, if any, they would deliver in common. At the close of the session we were struck by more than the messages, but the humility with which these leaders delivered them. Here are some of our takeaways from what was a great discussion on leading through difficult times.


HarnStartup Stock Photosess the Power of Others and Add a Personal Touch

They did not stand on that stage triumphantly, boasting about their accomplishments. Nor did they attribute success to themselves. Instead, General Petraeus said that true crisis requires you to “be very open – get input from everyone”. Desiree Rogers recommended “putting yourself second”, making personal contact with those who are affected, and taking questions in even the most challenging circumstances to create clarity for others. Alexa Clay echoed the need to build cohesion by identifying “what is it that we have in common, not what divides us”.

Crisis brings people together – we can all agree that harnessing the power of others will help get you through it. Yet for some it might be difficult to imagine mustering the bravery and humility necessary to put the work before themselves, moving forward sometimes in the face of public, personal, and professional ridicule.

Change Course to Stay on Top

This humility–whether a previously held trait or the benefit of making it through the storm–leads to the realization that success can at times be fleeting. As General Petraeus put it, “remember that while progress is significant, it is also fragile and reversible”. Once the storm has calmed, those on top often fail to recognize that they can be knocked down again. Yet they are in a keen position to identify and anticipate threats. Alexa Clay suggested constantly “pivoting outside your discipline for solutions” and talking with people who make us uncomfortable. She goes on to challenge the audience to “not be afraid to follow the rabbit holes” that emerge in pursuit of one’s goals. Desiree Rogers encouraged us to transform ‘it can’t be done’ thinking into a conversation about how to get it close – “It can’t be done really just means this won’t be done exactly how you laid it out”. And that’s okay. But every move that gets us closer is a move in the right direction, and once we are back on top the need for change is not as drastic as when we are struggling. “When on top of the world, make small adjustments to keep yourself there” was the message Gen. Petraeus left us with at the close of the lecture.

What do you see as enduring characteristics of leaders who survive the pressure cooker? What leadership qualities do you look up to when in crisis? What learnings do you have from facing challenge in your own career? Comment below, and reach out to Vantage to discuss how to support your organization’s leaders in challenging and stressful times.