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Pressure Testing with Dr. Rob McKenna | Podcast Episode 015

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About This Episode - 

IMPACT Players Executive Director Warren Mainard sits down to talk with Dr. Rob McKenna to discuss "pressure testing." Together, Warren and Rob discuss lessons from tennis, insights on how to develop a non-anxious presence, and the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits of composure.

Dr. Rob McKenna is the founder and CEO of WiLD Leaders Inc. and the author of the book Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure. Dr. McKenna has devoted his life to developing leaders and transforming the way we see the people in our organizations - seeing and developing them as whole. You can also see his most recent TEDx on this topic, Whole Leaders Under Pressure.

To find out more about IMPACT Players, visit www.impactplayers.org.

Listen: Apple | Spotify | Google


Show Notes -

Transcript -

Warren Mainard: Hey guys, welcome back to the IMPACT Players Linking Shield podcast. I'm so excited to have with me my friend, Dr. Rob McKenna, talking about pressure and pressure testing. We're gonna get into that in just a minute, but if you're new to IMPACT Players, IMPACT Players is all about inspiring men to be great husbands, fathers, and leaders. And this is what it's all about; guys like Dr. Rob talking about issues that real men just like you are dealing with. He's got so much wisdom to share with you guys today. As we think about pressure testing, what pressure reveals about us, and I gotta be honest, right from the get go, and I shared this with you before we even got started, Dr. Rob, I've got a lot on my plate right now. There's so many things that we're doing with IMPACT Players. We're, we're launching a new chapter in Everett. We just launched our digital online platform which is, we're hoping going to be a resource for thousands of men all over the country. Our upcoming IMPACT Breakfast is right around the corner with former NFL quarterback Jeff Kemp coming up on October 12th. And then we've got our cohorts with guys meeting all over the Puget Sound: training leaders, getting them prepared, getting curriculum written. It's a lot. And so I feel like I'm getting some of that pressure testing right now. So on a personal level, I'm excited to hear what you have to say and you are the guy to talk about it. I mean, there's really nobody better to talk about it. You wrote the book, which I've got in my hand here: "Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure." You did the TED Talk on leading under pressure. You are the guy. So, Dr. Rob, just welcome to this show. Thank you for being here. And let's talk a little bit about being our best when we're in the middle of a pretty tense situation.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah. So where do you wanna start, Warren? Where do you wanna start with that?

Warren Mainard: Well, you know, we have something in common that maybe a lot of people don't know, and that is, you and I were both competitive tennis players. I played all through college, just like you. I didn't go quite as far as you did trying to get into the competitive satellite circuit. But whenever I stepped out on the court, I always felt like that one of my greatest assets was my ability to remain composed and to play my best tennis when the pressure was highest. And I wonder, you know, there is such a great correlation in life between lessons learned on the field or on the court and then what we do in the boardroom or in our home, or just dealing with tension that may come from a variety of different sources. So I wonder, as you look back on your sports background, your sports career, what are some of those connections that you've seen when it comes to being able to be your best in a sports environment and how that translates into other areas of life now, kind of post tennis career?

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah, I'm cracking up, Warren, because I've been asked, you know, so many questions over the years about leading under pressure. I don't know if anyone has ever tried to dig up all my ghosts about my athletic past. I'm serious. I don't know if anyone, and I think I relate to it because I think a lot of what I talk about now, I can directly can make direct connections into athletics, and tennis specifically. And I think the other thing about it is my team at WiLD Leaders says this all the time. Like when they introduce me, they'll say like, not only is he an expert on pressure, he deals with it every day. So it's, whatever the topic is like, I just don't have a lot of faith in people who are out there speaking on things as if they've got it all figured out.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: I just do not believe that's the case. I think the people that have the best credibility, to me, are the ones who are still... they would openly tell you: I still struggle with vulnerability. I still struggle with compassion. I still struggle with pressure. And so I hope that's okay 'cause that's kind of who I am. And I I would say that one of the things that I think is interesting what you were describing is people ask me over the years like, what is pressure? Why pressure? Why does it matter? And the way I describe pressure is as an invisible force that tells you that something is changing. And I think it's that if there's something that we all share when it comes to pressure, it's... so fundamentally pressure is about change. And so when something changes and it can change in a moment, suddenly that's when we feel that force. And, and it's, there's physics behind that too. I could go down that whole path around, you know when molecules hit the side of a container and that's what causes pressure to increase inside of a container as like when things heat up. All those pieces of that. But I think it's also, when you were describing the realities that you face even in this moment of your life...

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: ...you describe some of the things that are happening in IMPACT Players is that those are all either large or micro changes that are, it's when something is gonna become something different. And so quite literally a pressure, pressure can be a conversation, that you've got to have that may shift that relationship. It may be a shift from, we're gonna shift from using, I always use this silly example, but using Google Sheets to Excel.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: You know what I mean? Organization. Like, those things freak people out and fundamentally why it matters 'cause it changed. And so, and then what got interesting is I got very interested in this, not just like the effects of, the specific effects of pressure on us personally. Like what is it that happens emotionally and psychologically under pressure that we could study and understand so that we could help other people be more composed and be their best selves in those kinds of moments? And going back to sports for just a minute, before I unpack all that, I'll wait on your question around that as we get in deeper into sort of that whole thing of what is, how do people respond? What did you learn? But as with sports, I have to pause because like I said, people have not asked me that before. And if I'm honest, I really struggled with composure and composing myself. And tennis is a great example. I, you know this, like it is one of the most psychologically challenging sports I'm aware of. First of all, it's all on you.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: So if you're a singles player, like you don't have even the doubles dynamic. There's a sense in which you're kind of not only playing your opponent, but you're playing yourself.

Warren Mainard: Absolutely. You're on an island. Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: There's nothing that brings up psychological baggage like trying to play tennis well. I mean, I can still see my dad's face watching, you know what I mean? I can still hear my mother's voice telling me things that she and my dad would talk about related to, you know the way that I played or things. They appreciated , I could be better at. I can picture my friends, I can picture moments where I literally felt sorry for a friend because I was beating him badly. And it got in the way of me actually winning. Like, there's, it's weird stuff and probably with them too. And so there are a few things like tennis, I think, and all sports do it. I can picture myself at the free throw line in high school when suddenly I got a too aware of who was watching in the stands and my elbow froze, and I just shot the biggest break you could ever imagine. So like remaining composed. And that's why I'm like, and so, and that's just a small sampling of sort of the reality that we face in way higher stake situations. And my work and research was really driven by how do we continue to be our best selves when that next high pressure moment comes?

Warren Mainard: Right.

Dr. Rob McKenna: When that change, that slight, that cellular level shift happens or that massive shift shift happens, how do we continue to be our best selves? That's where it started.

Warren Mainard: Yeah. And I, you know, as I'm thinking about this, especially when you get out of sports, but if you read enough sports biographies and hear people's stories, you see that sometimes the pressure manifests itself in the moment of the game, but then oftentimes it's later in another setting, in another situation where the pressure really causes a lot of the problems. And I think for men, especially when you're dealing with a lot of pressure at work, maybe you perform well there, but then you get home and you're not the man that you want to be. You're not the husband that you wanna be. I remember as a young dad dealing with a lot of pressure in my career, and I would have to stop a block from the house before I got home and just get my head right and, and pray and just try to get ready. Because I knew I was gonna walk through the door and I was gonna have two kids going bonkers that wanted to play and be at high energy and my wife was gonna be exhausted. And all of those things, we've all been there. But how do you kind of, maybe think through, manage the corollary effects of pressure?

Dr. Rob McKenna: So, a couple things. One, let me tell you what we found and then I'll tell you the how that is surprising to a lot of people is that, first of all, when I described pressure, sometimes that pressure is interpersonal. So it's between us. That's the most common thing between us and someone else. Sometimes it's intrapersonal. So it's actually something that's happening within us. So I'm, I don't even have to have anyone even talking to me to feel pressure on a tennis court. You know what I mean? So there's something that's just, it's almost like I'm having a conversation with myself emotionally.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: And then the third one is kind of what I described as an environmental pressure. And that's what I set up in my book was like this, sometimes there's things that aren't interpersonal, but it's things that are happening in the environment that are creating that change that's then causing that pressure, that force to feel like it's rising up in me. What we found was this; and there's, I am not the first researcher, practitioner, or theorist to think about this 'cause there's been some amazing work on this. What we found, and this was through multiple longitudinal studies, like where we studied groups of leaders across several years of their life. And the common factor was that people have a default. They have an emotional default. And that default can change based on different circumstances. So like when you were talking about home versus work. I've had people describe to me and they say like, Hey, I'm, why am I this way at home? And why am I this way at work? And the defaults, I'm really careful about labels, but I'm gonna give you a couple, but I but in hopes that you'll see that they're developmental and they're not, like, it's not personality, it's not, you aren't stuck in these labels, but they do help people to have handholds, like determine what are these defaults? What we found is that people will default to one of two possibilities. Some people under pressure will become more what I describe as a 'peacekeeper.'

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: And their emotional tendency will be, they, everything in them will be causing them to try to make sure everyone else is doing okay. And especially is okay with them. So it's like, it's not like an unselfish response, but it's like a, I'm just gonna do everything I can to make sure you're happy with me and you're feeling good.

Warren Mainard: That's the people pleaser.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yep.

Warren Mainard: That's the person that just avoids conflict, avoids confrontation.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah. Okay. And so, and we have a lot of leaders very high level to first level leaders who function that way. They're not bad people. I say that over and over again, but they have an emotional tendency in certain situations to go there. And what's interesting is a lot of times if I'm speaking about this to an audience, I'll see a bunch of people nodding their heads. You know what I mean?

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: They'll be like, I get you. Where are we going next? I need more of this. There'll be another group in the audience who does not even understand what I just described. And so they're like, and I described them. Now I, again, be careful of the labels, but the 'truth speakers.' There are some people who really under pressure, they'll be like, I know what we should do. I know what's important to me. I'm gonna tell you what's important to me. Truth speakers are needed for different reasons than the peacekeepers. The challenge with them is, they typically are hidden from, or they're absent from all the other data that's on the table. So truth speakers, people like this tend to be very clear, but they're clear about what's important to them with a decreased capacity to stay connected to what's going on and everybody else. And they're a little harder...

Warren Mainard: So they're the ones that can kind of be the bull in the China shop.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Absolutely.

Warren Mainard: They can be... they're less empathetic. They, you know, they're just so focused on the mission that sometimes, they can kind of move forward without consideration for others' feelings.

Dr. Rob McKenna: And I would go further to say that it's not just the mission, they're focused on themselves.

Warren Mainard: Okay.

Dr. Rob McKenna: There's, it's, they would call it the mission, but it's like , there's this reality that there's a bit that... now we need those kinds of people who are like that. But what I would say in terms of being able to help a leader is if the number one factor for me to, for every, for us to work with a person is their capacity and willingness to pay attention to what the default is. So it's harder to get through to the truth speakers 'cause they're like, okay, I'm just kind of a waste of time. All the emotional stuff you're talking about, McKenna.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: But here's, the reality is like, they got work to do. And so I've told, I've told many a CEO, they're like, so what are you, what am I supposed to do? I'm a truth speaker under pressure. I'm like, you need to shut up. You need to shut up. And what's interesting is that so often, you know what they'll say to me? They'll say, I get it. How do I do that? So most people think that they'll react against that. And, I just, I gotta tell you, Warren, it's so funny. I spoke to a group of 500 high school football coaches once, this was just a few years back.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: And this coach came up afterwards, he is up on the stage and he is like, all right, Dr. Rob, I get it. I understand all this stuff. He goes, I was a Marine, I was a firefighter, football coach, so I really get all this stuff, but I got this other question for you. And his wife's standing behind him going [shakes head], and it's like, it just not... shaking her head.

Warren Mainard: Right.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Because she's like, he does not get this at all.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: And I just, I, so my first layer, like it, for anyone who's listening to this, would be the important thing is to identify your default. And when I say default, what I mean, what is it that happens within you if you were to do nothing? If you were to just act out of compulsion?

Warren Mainard: Right. Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: If you're not gonna move forward with intention, but you're just gonna do what is normal for you to do. And so, and I think it, the reality is it does vary depending on whether people are at work or at home or different context.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: 'Cause different systems, we function differently emotionally in those different places.

Warren Mainard: Yeah. I mean, I'm processing this out loud with you and I can see how I am different in different scenarios. My defunct is to be a people pleaser. You know, I want everybody to be happy. I want people to be pleased with me and yet I've got this other part of me that is super ambitious and...

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah. That's you.

Warren Mainard: Wants to get this thing done. And there are times where I just feel like, okay, I've gotta put on this hat, and this is the hat of "I'm gonna tell you what needs to happen." And I laugh because, you know, there are times where I look at myself almost from like the outside. Like, if you're kinda like observing yourself as a spectator and you're like, wow, like when did I become such a contrarian in certain settings? And that was not me 25 years ago. But now I, you know, I feel so strongly about certain things that I'm like, no, that's not how it is. That's not what we're gonna do. We're gonna move forward this way. And so then I've gotta now kind of reevaluate, is that the right way? Is that the appropriate response in that pressure packed situation?

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah. I get you so well. I understand and I have, if I had a natural tendency, you know, a default, I would say that it, I relate to that peacekeeper part, but I also relate to... but people would describe me as extremely convicted. And so at the same time, I have a strong truth speaker that comes out, but I've had to understand the context within which those things emerge. And it's why I spent, you know, like in the WiLD toolkit, this whole intentional process that we use in organizations, these 10 developmental tools, one of them is called "The Leading under Pressure Inventory" because it's all about assessing. The first piece of that puzzle is to assess: which is your default? And then what it does is that it unpacks: what are the strategies? What are the things I could do? Which I'd love to get to is to give people some pathways. Like I didn't wanna just know, it's one thing to say, okay, yeah. I identified my emotional tendency.

Warren Mainard: Yeah.

Dr. Rob McKenna: You know what I mean? I'm a truth speaker or peacekeeper. I understand, I do, here's how I show up and why in different situations, but I'm also a problem solver. So I was like, let's study what it is that allowed leaders and people to do both at the same time.

Warren Mainard: Well, and I want to hear what some of the practices, you know, techniques are, but first it's just nailed down why it's so important, because...

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah.

Warren Mainard: One of the, one of my favorite quotes was by another one of our IMPACT speakers, John Beazley. He came a couple years ago and he opened up his talk by saying, "The greatest gift you can give your family is a non-anxious presence." And man, I can't tell you how many times over the last couple years during the pandemic, during all of this, you know, just divisiveness in our culture, that I've just been reminded of that idea that the best thing I can bring to this house, to this situation, to this staff meeting, to this controversial conversation that we're having. The best thing I can give is a non-anxious presence. And to me, that's what being composed is.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah.

Warren Mainard: Is that I'm not, I'm not reacting, I'm responding.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah.

Warren Mainard: And I cannot control whatever is coming out of you, but I need to be responsible for controlling what is coming out of me.

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah.

Warren Mainard: So why is that so important to have that ability to compose yourself in those high pressure moments? Not just the personal physical benefit, but what it does for you as a leader in those moments?

Dr. Rob McKenna: Yeah. First of all, I know some of the people who he was mentored under 'cause I was mentored under the same great thinkers because that term a 'non-anxious presence,' there are some amazing people who studied generations of families, and that's where that came from. And it's why, and I just composed, is just a sort of a little bit more street level.

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