Under Pressure: Lessons From Afghanistan


Tim HuffBy Tim Huff

Senior Consultant For most of us, life and death decisions are not part of our everyday leadership experience. Regardless of our industry or our responsibilities, the results of our decisions will rarely cause irreversible negative impacts to people. For me, this wasn’t always the case. Several years ago, while serving as the Chief of Current Operations for a brigade deployed in Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, I occasionally had a need to make rapid judgement calls that could have potentially deadly consequences. One such event comes to mind. A vehicle convoy from my unit in the southern part of Afghanistan came under fire from an enemy force. One of the vehicles was destroyed, but the remaining vehicles were fortunately able to escape the immediate threat. As they were speeding back to base, the convoy commander called in to my operations center to report the incident and request help. As I learned about the destroyed vehicle, I also learned a critically important item was still at the attack site. It would be bad for this item to fall into enemy possession, so I had a decision to make. I needed to either 1. allow the convoy to return to base and try to secure the item later, or 2. order the convoy to stop where they were, wait for help, and return to the attack site to retrieve the item. Time was a critical factor in this case. I didn’t have time to assemble a committee for a group consensus, prepare a risk assessment with mitigation measures, or even to gather all relevant facts. After about 20 seconds of assessing the situation, options, potential outcomes and risks, I ordered the convoy to hold in place and wait for help. Help arrived, they headed back to the attack site, and fortunately, the enemy left the area without taking the item. Everyone safely made it back to base.  

Stay Calm Under Pressure

This experience, and several others like it, helped me to understand some of the most important aspects of making decisions under pressure. Here are some tips for the next time you’re making a pressure decision. As cliché as it sounds, an important first step is to remain calm. As best as possible, it’s important to not let the extremes of the situation, anxiety, or fear distract you from keeping focused on the decision. When the situation is tense, take a deep breath, clear away anything not directly related to the decision, and focus.  

Outcomes, Outcomes, Outcomes

Secondly, think about the most important outcome. In stressful decision scenarios, it will be tempting to make the easiest decision choice available. Keeping clarity on the most critical criteria needs to drive your decision. Often, there will be many competing factors to weigh, but there are usually one or two most important aspects. Identifying these criteria, developing two or three potential options, and quickly evaluating which one satisfies the criteria the best is essential. In times like these, simplicity is almost always best!  

When Under Pressure, Trust Your Gut

Lastly, when figuring out which option to go with, trust your gut. I’ve often found that intuition is underrated. Although critical decisions should be made with an appropriate amount of analysis and discernment, don’t dismiss your initial gut reaction. Your combined collective past experiences and understanding of the situation are typically brought out in your intuition, so test that option out first. It’s often the best choice! Making critical decisions under pressure can be a daunting task for any leader and any level in any industry. However, by remaining calm, focusing on the right outcomes, and trusting your gut, you can confidently know that you are able to make a logical, thoughtful decision. Most of our best, most authentic decisions come from pressure situations, so don’t be afraid to lean in and lead!