You know the names: Michael Jordan, John Elway, Reggie Jackson. And those names conjure up the same images. You picture a three pointer being drained at the last second; a game-saving 98 yard drive in the closing minutes; a series-clinching home run in front of the home crowd.
You call them “difference makers.” They are the clutch players who always seem to deliver. You can describe them using every sports cliché: In those do-or-die moments with the game hanging in the balance and everyone counting on them, they answer the call and make the right decision at the right time. Sure, their opponents know these go-to players will be getting the ball. And they’ve practiced over-and-over how to stop them. When it comes to the actual moment, it’s easier to scheme than execute.
It isn’t easy for people to stick their necks out and lead. They become targets. The Monday morning quarterbacks nitpick, believing they could’ve done better if they’d just been chosen. And the malcontents resent them for being exposed as wannabes who are content to sit on the sideline and float through life, petrified of ambiguity and adversity, and always believing some deus ex machina will swoop in and save them.
But the stars can’t sit back and watch it happen. So what sets them apart? And how can you become more like them at work? Here are ten ways:
1) Prepare: Being clutch isn’t about one moment. It isn’t luck either. It is a culmination of the sweat and sacrifice that few see. Greatness is build on doing what is repetitive and dull, whether it is lifting weights or making cold calls. In these moments, our heroes constantly battle doubt and temptation. Away from the action, they face their limitations and fears, taking small steps forward as they push out of their comfort zones, always telling themselves, “Just one more” or “Never again.”
As they train, they imagine the day when it all comes down to the wire. They visualize the scenarios and physically and mentally rehearse their reactions. Alone, they study the strengths, flaws, and tendencies of their competition, teammates, and themselves. From there, they come up with a plan, never forgetting the outcome they are battling to someday achieve.
Some claim these go-to people have a “sixth sense” or a “nose for the ball.” They always seem to be around the action. Somehow, they can see steps ahead or make plays most couldn’t fathom. But it isn’t anything supernatural. As hockey great Wayne Gretzky explains, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” The same is true of any manager who anticipates problems with project launches or employee relationships. They just prepare more and process faster. As a result, their reactions become unconsciously instinctive.
But they also remember Mike Tyson’s dictum: “Everyone has a plan –until they get punched in the face.” So they presume adversity will hit and watch for the unexpected. They don’t marry themselves to one process or scheme. They simply trust in themselves and find a way to get it done.
2) Open To Responsibility: “Someone has to do it. Why not me?” That realization has launched every scientific breakthrough, Fortune 500 company, and literary masterpiece. Most people wait for life to come to them. They play small. They tip-toe through their lives, intimidated by the prospect of stepping forward and exposing themselves. When difficulty (or opportunity) presents itself, their first reactions are disbelief, denial, doubt, and dejection.
The go-to players are more afraid of missing out than making mistakes. They get out in front and assert themselves when others shrink back. They go all in, knowing the spotlight can feed them as much as embarrass them. When crunch time arrives, they want the ball in their hands. More than anything else, they want to own the outcome. And that doesn’t come from waiting around to be asked.
3) Set An Example: Clutch players are leaders. And this leadership stems from the example they set every day. Their peers take their cues from them. And they measure themselves against their leaders’ example. The go-to people are the ones who always go above-and-beyond, whether it’s running laps or killing sales goals. They don’t take shortcuts, knowing their teammates will grow sloppy if they do. They’re consistent in their day-to-day, so their peers know they’ll be steady when it really counts. And they set the bar high, understanding that expectations are self-fulfilling for everyone.
Champions don’t need direction. They’ve already figured out the destination. They just need a vehicle to get there.
4) Take Charge: Want to know the top reason why people fail? They react. Go-to people attack. They appreciate that they may only get one shot. So they live in that moment, recognizing its significance. They step back, breathe, patiently survey the landscape, and focus so all the moving pieces slow down. They don’t get ahead of themselves by worrying about any fallout. They’re not paralyzed by the fear of falling short. And they don’t let themselves be distracted by what their opponents are doing. They just concern themselves with what they can control.
In that moment, hesitation is the worst possible reaction. So the big-game performers are 100 percent certain and 100 percent committed. They are catalysts; the world reacts to them. By seizing their moment, they stand the greatest chance for success. Even if they don’t come through, they still hold their heads high because they grasp one immutable truth: Decisiveness is the antidote to regret.
5) Don’t Shy Away From Failure: Michael Jordan probably best summed up the dilemma faced by go-to performers:
“I’ve e missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Winners know that the distance between winning and losing is often a matter of inches. They are humbled by the knowledge that they can always fall short no matter how far they came. Despite any setbacks, leaders don’t dwell on the moment or feel sorry for themselves. They come to terms when they cough up the ball or botch the pitch. They move on. Their lives don’t end. Their loved ones still care for them.
Even when performers stop fearing letdowns, they still keep score. They neverforget. Failure hurts. It makes them hungrier – and more determined to never experience that pain again. Winners can’t stand to hear about “moral victories.” They want to go out and notch real ones. That makes them driven, obsessed even.
6) Bear The Criticism: Sports, like business, reflects who you really are. Pressure situations can bring out your best. But they can also expose your worst instincts. Even our star performers aren’t saints. They possess flaws. And they sometimes disappoint. For that, critics will call them ‘choke artists.’ But they forgot one thing: Clutch performers are rare. Only the few have the courage to act…and are willing to accept responsibility for the outcome.
Accountability: That’s what separates the winners. They don’t make excuses or blame fatigue. They don’t play the victim or wallow in guilt, shame, or anger. They realize that they set the standard. So they get back on their feet and lift their heads high. And their response signals to everyone else to do the same.
So let the critics bray. Go-to performers have already been through this before. And it has given them a thick skin. They just shrug off the naysayers. Some even use their criticism for fuel, telling themselves “I’ll show them. I’m the right guy. No one else can do this.” They understand that the critics – the pessimists – just accept the world as it is. But the great ones can envision what it could be. They know the odds. And they go after it anyway because they possess something so rare: Hope. And they share that hope by never giving in and always putting out.
7) Build Relationships: Call it what you want: Charisma, moxie, or swagger. The winners carry an innate air…a vibe…a spark. They exude energy. People gravitate towards them. They feed off their confidence and enthusiasm. Most important, they trust the go-to performers to take them where they can’t take themselves.
Make-or-break moments are won long before the score is tied or the final touches are being made. The go-to people start with themselves. They force themselves to do what feels unnatural, even agonizing. They set the tone by their word and deed. They understand it is their responsibility to pull people together, remove uncertainty, drive up intensity, and shield others from distractions. When their followers grow lethargic, sloppy, and entitled, they step forward to remind everyone what’s expected and hold everyone accountable for it.
Just as important, they forge relationships. To succeed, everyone must believe in each other long before the moment of truth comes. So they connect with their teammates. They look for ways to keep everyone involved and contributing, always evaluating what each is capable of doing. And they’re constantly asking themselves, “How can I make them better?” and “How can prepare them so we never have to face crunch time in the first place?”
8) Summon Their Will: It all seems to be slipping away. The clock is running low. The frustrations are piling up. And nearly everyone is looking for a reason to quit. In those moments, when those around them are losing their faith and looking to become smaller, the clutch players make themselves bigger.
In business, the expectations can be overwhelming at times. We’ve all said it: “There are so many people and variables involved. No one can make sense of this…not by tomorrow.” When we hit the wall – and wonder if we’re really capable – is often the time when we’re the closest to turning the corner. The go-to performers have learned this from pushing through similar situations. That’s how they’re able to find that little extra to make a second or third effort. They can gut it out because they’ve done it before – and want it more than anyone else. So they channel everything into the here-and-now, believing nothing can stand in their way.
Call it what you will – “The switch,” “The game face,” “The zone,” “The killer instinct,” or just “Grit”– the winners tune out everything that’s happened before. The end may not be clean or pretty, but it’s possible. And that’s all they need to know.
9) Maintain Composure: “Been-there-done-that.” “It’s all going to work out.” Those are the mantras of every prime timer. Sure, they feel anxious like everyone else. But they don’t get fazed or freeze up. They keep their poise when everything around them is crumbling. They don’t overreact, knowing that winning is often about staying around long enough and close enough to make a run when the competition tires. They don’t get overwhelmed; they just prioritize what will help them reach their outcome. And this rubs off on everyone else who looks to them.
There’s no formula for leadership. But there is one trait that unites real leaders: Grace under pressure. These leaders have mastered their emotions. Their people stay relaxed because they stay calm themselves, keeping the pressure at bay. And that earns the respect and loyalty of everyone under their charge.
10) Recognize Their Time: Michael Jordan didn’t take every game winning shot. He had snipers like John Paxson and Craig Hodges, who were proven clutch players. And Jordan had a second-in-command named Scottie Pippen who had a matching skill set. If Jordan couldn’t get around his defenders, he could always pass the ball. Or, he could just act as a decoy to free up a teammate. Bottom line: Jordan played a role…and it wasn’t always the go-to guy.
Just because the game is on the line doesn’t mean your time has come. There may be others more capable in these moments. Being the winner sometimes means stepping back, accepting a lesser role, and playing to your strengths. You may only be able to control one small area, but you can set the pick or handle the grunt work that ultimately influences the outcome. Never forget: Sacrificing for someone else – knowing you may not get the credit – is often what real leadership is about.
Jeff Schmitt, Contributor — I write about organizational behavior from the bottom up.