3 Lessons In Managing Under Pressure

When I was in high school and college, my brothers and I worked part-time diving for mussell shells in the Kentucky Lake area.

Photo credit: Kenneth Frizzell
Photo credit: Kenneth Frizzell

We would sell them by the pound at local markets, and those shells would in turn be sold to Japanese markets. Apparently, the pearly-white cuts from those shells are unique implants for growing cultured pearls in oysters.

One day I was climbing across the bottom of an area that was ten to twelve feet deep. As I found shells, I’d place them in a net-bag I had clipped to one side of my weight belt. As always, the only sounds I could hear were the hissing breaths from my regulator.

Because of low visibility, we didn’t swim with tanks on our backs. Instead our compressors, tanks, and filtered lines were rigged in the boats. I had a 50-foot air hose taped together with a 50-foot line of rope, and my regulator line was connected by a clip-on-hook to my weight belt at one end and attached to the boat and compressor at the other end.

As I worked along an even stretch of clay and mud, I swept the surface with my hands while pulling the boat along with me. Suddenly, I came up to a trotline. Above me somewhere, long fishing cords were stretched, weighted, and floating horizontally while in front of my face were the vertical lines interspersed with hanging hooks and bait. I didn’t like cutting these, so I tried maneuvering around this one instead.

But a few minutes later I felt a pressure pulling on my line. I tried to turn around to pull back at the hose in case it was caught on a root or stump and needed a good yank to free it, but I couldn’t move it any further than a few inches.

As I strained at the line, I finally saw where a few hooks from the trotline had snagged it. I began to consider my options. Because the hooks were snagged in various places along the hose, my weight belt was being pulled in the opposite direction. If I unclipped the regulator line-and-rope from my weight belt, I could keep breathing while I freed the snagged line from the hooks by hand. Then I could clip my air line back to my belt. This seemed like a reasonable option, so I reached for the clip and flicked it open.

In a flash, my regulator line jerked forward, almost yanking the mouthpiece right out. Instead, I was left biting down on it as hard as I could while the line shook with amazing force.

At that same moment, I realized I couldn’t move toward the hose any further because something was tethered to my back. I used one hand to help hold the mouthpiece in my teeth and the other to feel behind me. Somehow the trotline’s hooks were also snagged in my wet suit from behind. I was being pulled from behind with hooks in my back and forward from the snagged hose. I was still breathing, but this was the most dangerous moment I had ever faced.

I had trained for underwater emergencies, and in most cases, popping the weight belt clip open would free a diver from the bag and hose lines, and he could slowly swim and float to the surface. But if I popped the belt off now, I would still be tied to the bottom of the lake. And if I let go of my bite on the regulator mouthpiece, I’d lose my air source.

In those split seconds of bad options, I had a third choice…

With my free hand, I reached for my knife and pulled it from a sheath tied around my leg. I began cutting at any of the tangled trotline I could find. Soon I was free from the lines hooked in my back. And with the ability to move again, I followed the air-hose line to the source that was pulling it and began cutting it free before clipping it back to my belt.

3 Lessons From A Close Call
You may be wondering what this story has to do with school leadership. Sometimes I like to think back to my own stories of near misses and pull out the lessons that may help me in future scenarios. So here are three takeaways:

1. You perform better under pressure when you practice and lean on your training.
Long before I had begun solo diving, my older brother Jesse had been given the task of training me in safety. His training involved having me completely suit up and connect while walking through demonstrations of my work on the ground first. After he was satisfied that I understood each step and what to do in case of emergencies, I was allowed to do test dives.

One important safety step also included wearing a knife strapped to my left leg, and practicing locating and unsheathing it while in full gear and underwater for trial runs.

As a school leader, some of your responsibilities are carried out almost by second nature. But I guarantee that wasn’t the case at the start. Like me, you probably did a lot of sweating over new challenges. Eventually, you began to find the rhythms and routines that you now rely on as habits.

It is important to allow yourself room for making mistakes and then learning from them. And it is important to walk through difficult scenarios with young leaders so that they can reflect and learn in the process. Later when tough situations are faced, you learn to walk through them with more wisdom because you’ve practiced.

2. Keep calm and work slow and steady.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with one of my school’s Army recruiters. He was talking to me about his own survival training where he was plunged into water in full gear.

It was a controlled setting. Because others were standing alert to jump in and help., he knew he was safe. But when he plunged into the water wearing a hundred pounds of gear, he remembered his training. He was told that in intense situations, try to relax and work slow and steady.

So keeping a cool head, he carefully unzipped his jacket, and piece-by-piece he methodically removed his gear and all of outer garments before swimming safely to the surface.

Sometimes the best response to intense situations is to slow down and take your time.

When encountering a difficult conversation, for instance, take notes and try to put your thoughts in writing. Or if you are managing follow-up to a student fight, have the students sit in separate locations, and require them to write out statements before their discipline is assigned. It not only provides important documentation but also it also reestablishes a sense of self-control.

3. Have the right tools on hand in anticipation of possible scenarios.
Procedures, processes, handbooks, emergency plans—these are all the school leaders tools in implementing the right response to a given situation.

What tools are essential to the steps you will be taking in response to crisis or in response to a something good? Have these tools available before these scenarios arrive so that you can successfully move forward no matter the circumstance.

When I finally made it to the surface and could breath on my own again, I climbed into the boat, pulled my lines in behind me, and then said a prayer of thanks. I made many dives after that and had some other close calls, but moving forward would not have been possible without practicing, staying calm, remembering my training, and having the right tools on hand.

Now It’s Your Turn
Unpredictable situations are inevitable. What plans, practices, and tools do you have to help you manage those times when they come?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker