Karin’s Leadership Articles

The situation would have sent any leader who cared running for aspirin. I asked Mark, the Senior VP, “Are you okay? Are you stressed? What needs to happen next?” Mark responded, “Karin, I don’t get stressed. There’s no use in that. But as it turns out I’m a stress carrier.”

In humor lies the truth.

Mark had mastered executive presence. Mark had excited but not excitable nailed. Deeply passionate about the cause, nothing rattled him. He’d taken on each new scene as if he’d seen it a thousand times before. His actions were values-based, consistent, deliberate and timely. And yet he knew that his calm words didn’t always have a calming effect on his team. In fact sometimes, the more calm he appeared, the wilder his VPs became– as if to make up for his lack of excitable.

Stress was still rolling down hill, even though Mark had tried to stop it.

Excited Energizes, Excitable Freaks People Out

In almost every company I work with, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern– things are remarkably calmer on the executive “floor.” (Thank goodness, not always a real floor these days.)

The stakes are higher, the decisions graver, these folks have farther to fall, and yet when the going gets tough (for the execs who get it) the volume doesn’t amplify.

In full disclosure, I didn’t learn this early in my career. For a long time I believed my excitable nature proved I cared. I confused stress with passion. Fired up is a long way from freaked out. Know the difference in yourself, and in those you lead.

Your team longs for calm in you and in them. Don’t stop with you.

How to Encourage Excited vs. Excitable

So how do you grow leaders who emulate calm, in the midst of a frantic context?

1. Acknowledge Reality

More than anything your team needs to know you get it. Otherwise they think your head is in the sand. When you calmly state the issue and the implications, I promise that your team will breathe a sigh of relief. They’ll move from trying to prove that the fire is real, to trying to figure out how to extinguish it.

2. Stay Consistently True to Your Values

Great leaders stay true to their values when the going gets tough. If “customer service is #1” has been your rallying cry and you start short-cutting when budget (or boss) pressures loom, your team will be confused at best. Don’t change course. Instead ask, how do MAINTAIN OUR COMMITMENT to a great customer experience with these new parameters?

3. Encourage Wacky Solutions

Chances are that someone is sitting on an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Give them an opportunity to share. Then help them calm down, ask great questions, and consider how they could best execute.

4. Use Failure as Learning

When the going gets tough, our  tolerance for failing decreases, and in many well-intentioned leaders, disappears. Ironically, it’s in the toughest times that we need it most. The 18th failure is much harder than the second. Help your team stay calm and keep learning.

5. Stay Real

When the going gets really tough, your team wants the truth. Share what you can and help them to make informed decisions.

Leaders who win well are excited, but not excitable. They have a strong vision and a strong sense of where they are headed. They expect disruption and leverage chaos as an opportunity to engage creative solutions.

Stay excited. Resist excitable–for you and those who care enough to follow your lead.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Scott Giese

    The adage “never let a good crisis go to waste” comes to mind. However, you have to have the presence of mind to make good use of it. And you’re absolutely right — it IS quieter on the executive floor – at least the really good ones I’ve been part of.

    • Karin Hurt

      Scott, Excellent! Thanks for expanding the converation.

  2. Alli Polin

    Appreciate how you differentiate between the two. I’ve worked for and with people who thought that they had mastered calm, and did well standing in front of the division, giving the scoop, helping people to stay focused. Unfortuately, when one on one or in a small group with their direct reports, stress oozed everywhere. Instead of encouraging creative solutions, they turned towards the tried and true and cracked down hard on anyone who they wasn’t turning around results fast enough. In turn, many of their direct reports freaked out with their direct reports and everything started to roll down hill. Ultimately, the impact of the intial calm and confident communication was lost.

    This is an important component of executive presence and impact!

    • Karin Hurt

      Alli, Sometimes I think you and I lived in a parallel universe. I’m totally convinced that the true sign of executive presence is what happens behind closed doors.

  3. LaRae Quy

    Koved this post, Karin! I’ve known so many people who were excitable and they mistakenly thought their passion was driving their behavior.

    As you point out, it’s dangerous to confuse stress with passion, and yet I think a lot of “on fire” people do just that. They are always busy, on the run, no time for chit chat or delving further into a situation.

    “Fired up is a long way from freaked out.”

    My favorite was Acknowledge Reality. It sounds simple but so many people live in their own world and do not have the emotional intelligence to understand the basis for their behavior…

    • Karin Hurt

      LaRae, Thanks so much. I think your mental toughness model really goes a long way in helping to support people to do this more effectively.

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