There was a small fire on the roof that was starting to spread. My father had the hose out, trying to keep it from spreading faster while waiting for the fire truck to show up, which seemed to be taking forever. I could hear the siren from down the street, and I was energized and scared at the same time. I’d never had this close-up of a seat to watch firefighters work. It would have been fun and exciting if it wasn’t our house.

The fire truck stopped in front and then … nothing. There was no flurry of activity, running to get hoses ready, screaming for the right people to start doing the right things as quickly as possible.

Nope. They were like molasses getting out of the truck surveying the situation. Slowly and methodically putting on their gear, first their helmet, then their coat, then the respirator. All the while, my dad’s little hose was doing little to squelch the fire monster on our roof.

I couldn’t take it anymore, so I started yelling at the firefighters to get the hose hooked up and get this fire out. What was wrong with them?


After the team of firefighters put the fire out, the one I had yelled at came over and explained the strategy. When there is extreme pressure and chaos, you need to be the agent of calm – for yourself and others. Calm is contagious. AND it allows you to perform at your highest level. He said it would be a clown show if they hit the scene and started running around – tripping over each other – and inefficient.

Slow down to perform your best. That’s Counterintuitive.

This story was told at July’s monthly council by an Acumen partner. We discussed the classic urgency vs important matrix and how much time we all spend on the urgent side – the firefight, whirlwind, whatever you want to call the daily grind, and how much time you spend on the most critical parts of your business and people.

Most leaders feel good when they are busy: checking boxes, solving problems, and getting things done. There are always parts of work that will be this way, but if you are at the top of the organization, how much time should you spend in this part of your business?

Why do we crave and seek out the fires, running around when we aren’t at our best in that effort?

I once had an Acumen partner run into our meeting. He literally ran from his car and into the coffee shop.

“How many meetings are you literally running into?” I asked.

“All of them.” He said.

No Bueno.

As you read this, you “get it.” It makes sense. But how do you handle your emotions in the whirlwind?

Professional sports offers us an insight into how to handle the stress and anxiety of the urgent to perform at our peak. What do almost all athletes do when they are preparing to play? They slow down and calm down.

Basketball players take a bunch of deep breaths before they take a free throw. Baseball players have a routine to prepare themselves to hit. Pitchers blow out a massive breath while going through a familiar sequence to stay loose. Swimmers are loosening their muscles and blowing out meaty breaths to release pent-up energy.

Busyness, anxiety, and stress are all enemies of high-performance leadership. They steal from you the ability to be present in your life and cut you off from it.

When you have to do the most important high-pressure thing you do at work, how do you calm yourself to perform your best? What’s your personal process to get out of the fire truck, put on your gear, and assess the situation?

Here’s a practical and straightforward thing to try this week. When you notice that you are walking into a meeting that you are feeling stressed about – before you walk in, stop – physically and mentally. Take 3-4 deep breaths, and tell yourself what the best result of the meeting can be. When you’ve take an 8 in anxiety down to a 5, then walk in.

Dan Cooper


Dan is a Partner and Growth Catalyst for Acumen, a mastermind community that exists to sharpen, challenge, and inspire CEOs and Owners through affinity-centric advisory teams, executive coaching, and leadership acceleration workshops.