Take the Stairs One at a Time

Leadership of self is the first step.

I used to work with a guy who was always calm and in control. You couldn’t rattle him, no matter what happened. His relaxed demeanor would in turn help me to relax. I eventually added his unflappability to my 3×5 card of qualities I wanted to develop.

I asked him about it one day. “No matter what we’re doing, how much of a hurry we’re in, or how bad the day is going, you’re always relaxed. You don’t let it get to you. How do you do it?”

He smiled and gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten:

“Take the stairs one at a time.”

Photo courtesy of ©iStockPhoto/pcruciatti

At first, I thought he was telling me to slow down because he thought I was going to trip. I assured him my footing was fine. “You misunderstand. In all the time you’ve known me, have you ever seen me run up the stairs?” He was right. I’d never seen him run, period.

He explained that he understood the urgency and need for alacrity. But would rushing down a flight of stairs really get us there any faster? We still had to drive across town. If one of us sprained an ankle, we’d be slowed down even further. Most importantly, his deliberate economy of movement did two things:

  1. It assured everyone else that he had things under control.
  2. He assured himself that he had things under control.

I just finished reading Thou Shall Prosper by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In it, he talks about how the lion is king of the animals because it doesn’t waste movement. Elephants are twitchy. Birds hop around frenetically. But lions will sit still and watch. If you looked at surveillance video of the savannah, which animal would you think most had things under control?

We know what nervous looks like. We know what confident looks like. We pick up on the body language of others and it feeds into our assessment of that person and the situation. There is a strong correlation between your ability to remain in control of yourself and your ability to influence others.

Steven R. Covey would regularly help his son, the starting quarterback, improve his performance on the field through visualization exercises. Before suiting up, he had already pictured he perfect pass to his wide receiver, seen the defensive line showing a blitz, and could smell the well-manicured turf under his feet. He had already seen himself remaining calm and responding—not reacting—in every situation. The end was already created in his mind. Now he just had to go make it happen.

Try sticking a box of Nerds in your front pocket, on the dominant leg. As you take the stairs, can you hear the candy rattle? You’re moving too quickly. Slow down. Be intentional and deliberate with every step. Do you feel different? More relaxed? It’s amazing how much slowing down can change your mood.

You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you respond. Start by controlling your physical response. How you act will feed back signals into your brain. Those signals can either be calm and peaceful or frantic and stressed. It’s up to you.

Once you have your physical response under control, then it’s easier to work on your mental and emotional response. Everyone will think that you have everything under control, including you. Skip the panic stage and go straight to dealing with it. Visualize yourself responding, calm and in control, in any situation. See the victory on the field and go make it happen.

I don’t always take the stairs one at a time. Every time I don’t, I can hear his advice. Every time I slow down, I can feel the difference it makes.

Question: How do you remember to stay calm under pressure? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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