The other night I caught an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30, the series of documentaries featuring seminal moments in sports over the past three decades. The episode focused on how the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller single-handedly dismantled the New York Knicks during the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Here’s what happened: With only moments left in Game 1 of the series and his team trailing 105-99, Miller scored an eye-popping eight points in 8.9 seconds to achieve an amazing win. In that series of baskets Miller established himself as “The King of Clutch,” (a moniker sports columnists use to this day) a player with the ability to triumph despite pressure-cooker situations and insurmountable odds. Although he produced an amazing performance, Miller wasn’t the most gracious of winners as he repeatedly shouted “choke artists” on his way back to the locker room. In fact, his barb was plastered on the front page of local papers.
Decorum notwithstanding, Miller’s display on the court can be applied to the arena of business. In fact, there are a number of clutch players that BLACK ENTERPRISE has profiled over the years. Take American Express Chairman and CEO Kenneth I. Chennault who used his cool, methodic approach to steer his company through 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2008. Another is Bernard B. Beal, head of BE 100s investment bank M.R. Beal & Co., who continues to take his company to even greater heights after contending with a series of volatile markets and ultra-competitive Wall Street leviathans that grow in intensity year over year. Another entrepreneur Janice Bryant Howroyd, CEO of staffing services firm Act-1 Group, has had to manage through lack of capital, insufficient resources and closed doors over her 30 years in business. Despite such barriers, she has always focused on the next opportunity to grow her enterprise. Today she sees nothing but net as the only African American woman to own and operate a $1 billion BE 100s company.
I found out more about this unique quality among a set of professionals and executives who not only met such challenges but thrived under such conditions. In his book aptly titled, Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Others Don’t, author and New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan maintained that clutch was not an innate ability but a process in which people can perform better under pressure and avoid blunders that can make the best of us choke.
Within his 246-page book, Sullivan shares principles he discovered in interviews with the nation’s leading entrepreneurs, top lawyers and unflinching commandos. He wrote that clutch performers all possessed the following qualities:
- The power of focus. He calls this element “the foundation” of clutch. Many may confuse it with concentration, he asserts, but the most important elements include preparation and being “clear on the endgame.”
- The practice of discipline. Sullivan wrote of his second core principle is the ability to exercise self-control and stick with a specific strategy regardless of pressure points. As one of his subjects noted the process allows those achieving goals to avoid distractions, maintain bearings and trust themselves.
- The ability to adapt. Sullivan wrote you have to engage in “fighting the fight, not the plan.” Using the US Secret Service as an example, Sullivan spelled out their approach of making plans as tight as possible then “prepare for all the ways it will fail under pressure.” The key to adapting the plan: Avoid looking emotionally inward but focus on the task at hand, especially if it involves life and death.
- Being present. Although the author wrote that the approach may sound a bit New Age, the principle is a learned behavior, the progression of focus, discipline and adaptability.
- The use of fear and desire. Sullivan maintains that by preventing your tendency to become too content with success, you will be able “to stay clear-eyed” under intense pressure.
Sullivan’s principles demonstrate why individuals like Miller, Chenault, Beal and Howroyd have been strongest of clutch players. Through the application of Sullivan’s tenets and the aforementioned examples you can operate at the highest level and not run the risk of being labeled a choke artist.