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How to Lead Under Pressure


What Olympic athletes can teach us about leading teams when the pressure is rising

Pilot Justin Kripps of Canada (front) leads his team as they start the 4-man bobsleigh training session during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games mark the pinnacle of many elite athletes' careers. But with the promise of glory comes tremendous pressure. Between diplomatic boycotts, strict safety protocols, the media and the rapid spread of Omicron, Team Canada still needs to perform at its peak on the international stage at Beijing 2022. Many athletes will rise to the occasion and thrive. So what can business leaders learn from our Olympians? 

To answer that question, we spoke with Diana Drury, director of team and executive coaching, MBA/Masters programs at Smith School of Business. Drury has worked with high-performing teams for over three decades, preparing them for the rigours of corporate leadership. She has also coached elite athletes—and was one herself—and sees parallels between business and sport.

Just as a coach leads athletes to the podium, business leaders guide their teams to deliver when the stakes are high. Here are five tips gleaned from Olympians to help you do exactly that.

1. Use pressure to your advantage

Yes, pressure can be good thing. It isn’t something we should completely avoid. If we don’t have pressure in life, we can become complacent, says Drury. “Things get a little too easy.” Business leaders often underestimate the value of pressure as a source of motivation, energy and power. “Pressure can be a potent driving force,” Drury says.

So what can office leaders learn from athletes about dealing with pressure? That athletes use pressure to propel themselves to greater heights of performance. “Instead of getting overwhelmed by the situation at hand, they focus on their goals and keep their purpose front and center. This is true of successful business leaders as well,” Drury says. 

2. Know when to step back

Great teams can achieve exceptional results under the right leadership. The skip of a curling team knows that each team member plays a special role on the team and contributes unique skills. The skip doesn’t try to do it all. “Play your position and know the expectations of your role,” Drury states. 

In business, unfortunately, leaders often try to do too much. “The inclination to control everything—especially in high-pressure situations—can be hard to overcome,” says Drury. Her advice: Learn to support your team from behind, or at least from the side. “Successful captains and coaches know the type and amount of feedback and support each member of their team requires at any given moment.”

3. Create a growth-minded environment

Recognizing that a good team is made up of different types of people breeds success. “All of us bring different things to the table: the way we’ve been brought up through our cultures, our value systems, our experiences in life. It’s a two-way street that includes trust and involves collaboration,” Drury says. A great leader learns as much from their team as the team learns from them.

But there’s more: Strong captains encourage team members to push their limits and challenge themselves to improve. And when team members feel supported, they perform better, says Drury. “Successful leaders create a psychologically safe environment where team members can test their limits, learn, grow and eventually flourish.” Ultimately, this benefits the team because for every setback, there will be a win and a lesson learned.

4. Prepare and practice (a lot)

“We achieve our goals when we acknowledge that a situation is going to be full of pressure and we prepare for it,” says Drury. Leading up to the Olympics, athletes take charge of their training schedules, follow nutrition and sleep plans, and keep their mental focus sharp by working with sports psychologists and coaches.

Preparation is just as important for business leaders. The best way to do that: plot out your strategy, make a plan and execute it. “Elite athletes are disciplined and specific,” says Drury. “They identify where they are weak and follow designed exercises to target those weaknesses. You can do that too.” Business skills are like muscles, after all. The more you use them, the stronger they get.

5. Reflect, debrief and be accountable

When the big game is over, athletes don’t just go home and forget about it. They debrief to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Business teams need to do the same. “A team debrief is an opportunity for everyone to come together after a project and reflect on what just happened,” says Drury. “It’s a time to share openly and candidly for the benefit of the greater good. Lessons learned can be leveraged and applied to the next team-based project.”

Teams that have experienced problems need to debrief so they can right the ship (or bobsled) and not repeat mistakes. “If a team member isn’t pulling their weight—being a supportive and effective team member—let them know, provide them with timely feedback, expectations and give them time to change. The next step would be to consider implementing a performance improvement plan with measurable objectives,” Drury says.

And yes, team debriefs are just as important when things are going well. As Drury points out: “High-performing teams capture the reasons for their success so they can continue to build on what’s working to make it even better the next time around.”


Smith School of Business is the exclusive business education partner of the Canadian Olympic Committee and a founding partner of Game Plan. As a component of this partnership, Smith works with Canada’s Olympic coaches to add the best practices of Olympic coaching to the Smith approach to team-based learning and coaching.

Photo credit:MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images