Poise under Pressure

One of Winston Churchill‘s greatest initial challenges at the beginning of World War 2 was keeping his naval forces afloat during the turbulence of the early days of the war. About a year later, his most significant concern turned to hold Parliament and the country on an even keel as Nazi assaults pounded them.

To do that, he had to keep the nation calm, a goal he would accomplish through his speeches and with his own demeanor of relentless optimism and composure. Churchill’s personality and character would be crucial elements to keeping the citizens of Great Britain calm. He demonstrated personally how to ‘keep calm and carry on.’

One of the greatest pieces of advice I received early in my business career was to keep the long game in mind and stay calm. That mindset served me many times and set me on a path for more significant challenges and opportunities in the future.

Learning this lesson served me well as my US Airways flight started to cross over the George Washington Bridge heading nose first into the ice-cold Hudson River.

The question I most often get

One of the questions I often receive about what happened on January 15, 2009, is, ” How does someone manage their mind through a crisis?” I share something I first learned in 1994, a lesson that has served me many times and especially when I go into an uncertain state of mind.

I had the honor of visiting Namale Resort in Fiji. That week, Tony Robbins and the security team were there enjoying a week of recreation and bonding. One of the activities we did that week was jumping off a bridge into a natural salt river at midnight. The distance from the bridge to the river was pretty significant. However, once you get the courage to jump, you land in warm saltwater and float in darkness under the stars, ending up in a beautiful saltwater lagoon.

On the drive up to the bridge, anticipating the jump, I was speaking with Tony about how do you stay composed when your mind is going wild. He told me you have to put yourself in a state of resourcefulness and gratitude.

Once we reached the bridge and it was my time to jump, I couldn’t see ANYTHING below me. My mind was hallucinating all the things that could happen. I realized that if I was going to jump, I had to change what I focused on and stay composed. I started to put myself in a resourceful state, and suddenly, I had a magic moment coming up. I started to have gratitude for everything I had in my life, especially my family.

That experience became a reference for me when my mind goes a little sideways that I can leverage.

Water is a metaphor for life

As US Airways 1549 approached the George Washington Bridge, I could see what was happening was one of those moments. In the next 90 seconds, I could be dead, maimed, or burned. In that last moment, as I was seeing the movie of my life pass before my eyes, I remember seeing that bridge in Fiji, and I was not scared. I went into a mindset of resourcefulness and gratitude and became composed. And the rest is history.

As I went back into the Hudson River to swim with the Navy Seals with my wingman, Suzanne Lesko, I had a similar moment, about 400 meters from the shore in New York City. After we got separated, I quickly looked to my left, and I saw the George Washington Bridge, and almost immediately, I went into a state of gratitude, as I knew I had survived the river before. The river saved me once and it would save me again. I yelled out to Suzanne that I loved her, and she said the same back to me and I knew that everything was going to be alright. We were going to make it.

Over the past few years, we all have faced many challenges, some out of our control, some self-inflicted. But to create opportunity out of uncertainty, you must think about the long-term win and stay composed.

If you lose your head, you lessen your chances of surviving that defining moment. Successful leaders have learned to keep their heads when everyone around them is losing theirs.

“Keep calm and carry on.”

They keep their poise under pressure, stay composed, and keep a long-term perspective. And that is how they create opportunity out of uncertainty and create their flight plan for their future.