What Leaders Can “Control” During Tough Times
Warren Buffett said that, as an investor, “It is wise to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Stoical coaches remind us not to get high after a win or low after a loss. Sages encourage us to keep an even keel no matter the circumstances. In short, we are reminded to remove emotion and maintain the same attitude no matter what is going on around us.
It all sounds great in theory, but as we know, it’s much easier said than done! None of us would be human if we could just shrug off what’s going on in the world right now. It’s understandable to feel the stress of all this uncertainty. At the same time, because others are so worried, you need to be more centered than ever to lead your organization.
In this column, I will give you a practical and simple technique to deal with the stress and be an effective leader in this environment.
First, I want to tell you a little bit about myself and how I learned many of these lessons from my experience as a professional poker player.
When I joined Patriot Capital as National Sales Manager in January, I felt lucky to lead a team that was already thriving. Most new managers are brought in to fix things. I, on the other hand, was hired to turn an excellent situation into an even better one. Sure enough, my first two months on the job entailed tweaking success.
When the pandemic happened, I turned to my background as a poker player (which included a six-figure win at the World Series of Poker). Poker is a frustrating game, in which circumstances are constantly going against you. Even the most disciplined and talented players have big fluctuations. You can do everything right and lose for months on end. Dealing with those negative fluctuations is what separates losers from long-term winners.
I learned more about business from poker than I did from getting an MBA. This very thesis was the subject of my book The Poker MBA: Winning in Business No Matter Cards You’re Dealt (Random House). The most important premise is that the only thing you can control is your decisions. It’s not the cards you are dealt that determine success; it’s the way you play them. At some point in your career, you will be dealt lousy cards. How you react is what keeps you in business.
That concept hits home now more than ever. Many of us will claim (and rightly so) that this pandemic has dealt us a bad hand. To deal with this adversity, I focus on what I can control and let go of the things I can’t. What has worked for me—and may work for you—is writing down what you can and can’t control.
What I Can Control
- My eﬀort and my mindset
- The frequency and quality of my communication with my team
- Being a source of strength for my family
- The media I choose to watch and the people I choose to engage with
- The number and quality of calls I make every day
- How I respond to my customers’ needs
What I Can’t Control
- When shelter-in-place will end
- The price of oil
- The stock market
- What the government and the CDC will say and do
- Whether the EMV deadline will or will not be extended
During stressful times, it’s critical (though not easy) to shift your focus to the things that you can control. And though it will be tough, do your best to let go of the things you can’t. Being dealt lousy cards is out of your control. Folding those cards—and focusing on the next winning hand—is a decision that is well within your control.
I appreciate that this environment is challenging, which is why, now more than ever, our customers, employees, and partners need us focused on the things that matter. If we, as leaders, get caught up in the things we can’t control, those around us will do the same.
Adversity will bring out both the best and the worst in people. When others are fearful, they will be watching you to see your reaction. This creates the opportunity to be the calm in the storm and lead your organization. Though you have no control over external events (the cards you’re dealt), you are in total control of your decisions (the way you play them). In times like these, I do my best to heed the words of Marcus Aurelius, who said, “You have control over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
National Sales Manager
Patriot Capital Corporation