What The “Mission: Impossible” Movies Can Teach You About Pressure

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I just saw the new Mission: Impossible movie. I’m not going to give anything away here (because you may not have seen it yet, and besides, I’m not that kind of a jerk), but it is absolutely filled with high-pressure situations!

As in the previous five installments, Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt. And, as in the previous five installments, there’s a lot at stake. What I find interesting, though, is that the three elements that create a high-pressure situation for Ethan Hunt are the same three elements that create a high-pressure situation for you (four, if your high-pressure situations typically involve a beautiful woman in peril).

1. The Importance of the Outcome

In the Mission: Impossible movies, the outcome is usually life or death. Sometimes Ethan’s, sometimes someone close to him, sometimes a large percentage of the world’s population. The point is, there’s a lot riding on the outcome! Your high-pressure situations may not literally be life or death (although sometimes it might feel that way), but, like Ethan’s situations, there’s a lot riding on the outcome!

We feel more #pressure when there’s a lot riding on the outcome. #leadership #producingunderpressure Share on X

Here’s the funny thing, though. Sometimes we create a high-pressure situation when there is none. We do this by artificially inflating the importance of the outcome. I call this “catastrophizing,” and you’ve probably done it. Have you ever screamed your way through traffic because you’re late for an appointment — because it’s absolutely vital that you get to this particular appointment on time?! You grip the steering wheel like a vise, your blood pressure spikes, and your veins feel like they’re going to burst through your skin! And what’s this all-important appointment? You’re meeting some friends for dinner. Wow. Real life or death stuff there.

I’m not saying you should minimize the actual important stuff; I’m saying you should stop maximizing the mundane.

2. The Uncertainty of the Outcome

Although Ethan Hunt has a pretty good track record, he can never be sure that this crisis will end well. Think of it this way: for you, eating dinner at a restaurant is probably not a high-pressure situation. Sure, there’s a remote chance you might get food poisoning, but that’s so rare that it’s not even on your radar. Imagine, though, that you were an international spy, and you knew someone was trying to poison you. Now how do you feel about that first bite of garlic mashed potatoes? So what do you do? You stop eating at restaurants. You hire a food taster. You cook your own meals. In other words, you do what you can to make the outcome less uncertain.

We feel more #pressure when the outcome is uncertain. #leadership #producingunderpressure Share on X

In your real world, you can do the same. You practice your skills, you continue to learn, you surround yourself with good people. In other words, you do what you can to make the outcome less uncertain.

3. Your Personal Accountability for the Outcome

Unfortunately for Ethan Hunt, he’s generally not in a position where he can say, “Hey, this isn’t my problem, but I sure hope it turns out okay.” Sure, if that were the case, he might feel some pressure — particularly if the first two elements are in play. But the pressure is a lot higher when, like Ethan, you’re the only person who can fix it.

We feel more #pressure when we’re personally accountable for the outcome. #leadership #producingunderpressure Share on X

So how do you mitigate this one? Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes, as the leader, it really is all up to you. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, which is why you get paid the big bucks.

But sometimes we play the martyr when we don’t need to. Sometimes we can share the accountability but refuse to. How can we share the accountability? By involving our team. By getting a coach or talking to a mentor. By delegating. In other words, sometimes you don’t have to do it all. Learn to recognize those times, and take advantage of the help that’s available to you.

Ethan Hunt’s life is all about impossible missions. But yours doesn’t have to be. In fact, most of your impossible missions will become quite possible when you effectively manage the three elements of pressure.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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