What All Leaders Can Learn from NASCAR

NASCARThis weekend the NASCAR racing series returns to the Talladega Speedway. Last year I was interviewed by Megan Englehart of Fox Sports about the pressures facing young drivers in the Truck Series elimination race at this track. As the circuit returns to Talladega this year, I’ve reflected on some lessons all leaders can learn from high-pressure events and venues. Although this weekend’s race is part of the regular season, the drivers will be faced with playoff pressure later this year at the same venue.

Let’s examine how leaders can best respond to high-pressure situations that present unique challenges.

Embrace Pressure

The NASCAR Cup Series champion is determined by a playoff system during the last ten races of the year. Sixteen drivers earn playoff spots in the Cup Series, with drivers being eliminated as races progress. They must handle the pressure of each race allowing them to compete for the championship or be eliminated.

Leaders in all walks of life face similar pressures. They face competition on a daily basis. As a major goal approaches, pressure intensifies. Great leaders embrace this pressure rather than dreading it. They have confidence in themselves, their teams and the preparation that led them to the position of competing for a major win. Ask yourself:  Do you embrace pressure, or do you allow it to erode your confidence? Your team is watching you closely. They need a leader who is unwavering in response to pressure, as opposed to changing their leadership approach or becoming distracted when the going gets tough.

Focus on What You Can Control

Talladega is one of the few racetracks on the NASCAR circuit that requires teams to use restrictor plates in their engines. These devices reduce the speed of race cars and equalize the field. As a result, cars are very tightly bunched in packs throughout the race. One driver’s mistake often takes out many other cars because drivers do not have the reaction time they have at other tracks when cars are more spread out.

Okay, so enough with racetrack and engine lingo. How is this relevant to all leaders? At Talladega, drivers understand their race is much more likely to be ended by another driver compared to races at other venues. As a result, they tend to concentrate on external factors rather than their own execution. We see this all the time in business, sport or any performance-based activity. Despite all our physical training, market research and other preparation, the outcome of a specific event can be affected by actions we cannot control or predict. Performance at the highest level is determined by how a leader responds to uncontrollable events because it is not possible to totally eliminate them.

So does that take the leader off the hook? Absolutely not. It actually provides the opportunity  for greater focus. If a Talladega driver is overly concerned with competitors who may cause a wreck, they have already lost focus on their own driving. While they should be aware of other drivers, they cannot lose focus on what they can control, which is their own race. This same situation happens in business when leaders become overly focused on their competition rather than key tasks required for their team to be successful. Your team brings a unique skill set to their work. Don’t try to copy others or become obsessed with what they are doing. Keep your team focused and let the competition worry about you!

The Learning Process of Success

Performing well under pressure is a continual learning process. After each major event, evaluate what you and your team did well and what needs adjustment to capitalize on your next opportunity. This approach calms your team and prevents any single event from becoming too magnified or overly important. Sustainable excellence is a journey. When your team understands they should concentrate on the process instead of the outcome, they remain calm and focused on what they need to do rather than becoming overwhelmed by a major stage. Most performers are not successful the first time they compete at a high-pressure event. As a leader, you need to guide your team through the process that teaches them how to win.

As with any component of excellence, performing well under pressure requires discipline. Embrace pressure, remain focused on what you can control and treat every performance as a learning opportunity. This formula will allow you and your team to thrive when it matters most.

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