How to lead through stress and uncertainty with military Special Forces trainer and coach

Darja Gutnick
9 min readAug 9, 2021

It’s not every day that you get to ask a military Special Forces mental toughness trainer and executive coach anything you want. But a couple of weeks ago, our Teams at Work Slack community for leader was joined by Renita Kalhorn to do just that!

Not only has Renita worked with 1200+ leaders in her tenure as a coach, but she’s also a Juilliard trained pianist and black belt. She specializes in helping leaders build and support high-performing teams in times of high stress and uncertainty. The community had some great questions for Renita. Here are the highlights:

🚀 On influencing your team’s productivity

Q: How do I navigate the stress and overwhelm of managing a virtual group of teams in two locations? How do I influence their consistent productivity?

The glib answer is that you can find time now to connect with the virtual team or you can find time later to interview, hire, onboard new people.

In my latest Forbes article, I write about a founder who had to have a 4.5 hr convo w/someone who was becoming toxic because they’d been lax on having 1:1s.

Here are a few things I work on with clients who “don’t have time” (i.e. all of them):

1. Train people how to talk to you. Most people don’t know how to be concise, get to the point and focus on what’s relevant. They’re caught up in their own POV, used to figuring out what they think while they talk.

As a leader, you need to give them context for where you’re coming from, set boundaries, provide guidelines. When you give them context — “I have 100 things I’m thinking about and I want to give you my full attention. I have 15 minutes, tell me what’s most important.” — you help them focus and upgrade their thinking.

The difference between 0 minutes and 15 minutes where you’re fully present is huge. Even if they’re getting “less” time with you they’ll feel listened to, cared for. More thoughts in this LI post.

2. Leverage your conversations. If you find that you’re saying the same thing over and over to your team, make a video. Then you can start your 1:1 conversations at a deeper, more personalized level. Videos in general are a great way to communicate when you can’t have as much synchronous conversation as you’d like.

Q: How can I lead powerfully to support radical productivity, employee loyalty/engagement, and better awareness for me of promotion execution so I can begin focusing on the more important things to grow the company?

What I’ve found over and over with clients is a paradox: they’re trying to move so fast, it’s slowing them down. And their team is confused and demotivated.

One of my clients has as his “keyword” : PREPARED. He stopped having ad hoc meetings, in his meetings, he focused on two or three key things (not 17!), he set up office hours so he wasn’t being constantly bombarded, no meetings on Friday so he has dedicated time to think…

Amazingly, when he shows up prepared, he’s more present. When he’s more present, people know he’s listening so they share their ideas, what they really think, they jump in with solutions instead of expecting him to come up with everything. Now, instead of having to pull and push people, he’s just guiding and giving gentle direction.

😫 On what to do when a key team member quits

Q: We have a situation where a very valuable team member that was key in earlier stages of our business left. Team members that have been here longer are grieving, but we also have new team members that are super enthusiastic and don’t relate to the situation much.

How do we give space for those that are sad about the loss without excluding those that did not know that team member so we can move forward together into the future?

It’s such a messy emotional cocktail. I think you can say exactly what you say in your question: “So I want to give space for those of you that are sad about the loss without diving too much into the emotional rabbit hole/excluding those that did not know team member. I’m going to do my best to find the right balance — I don’t want to brush over the feelings of loss/seem cold — but I’m also feeling emotional too so I may not always get it right!”

And then you can share with those who don’t know the person a few tidbits about the person who left, kind of like your parents might talk about a grandparent that you didn’t know very well. “We use this phrase because Person X used to always say this, or do this…” The idea is to help the new people understand the references and make them feel included, not to avoid the subject altogether.

🥵 On burnout prevention for your team

Q: After > 1 year of pandemic and additional private stress, half of my team is close to a burnout. Apart from telling them to walk away from stressful situations, being as open about it as they are comfortable (and count on colleagues to be nice and caring), and taking things as slow as they need, offer free coaching… — anything else I can do to help?

Sounds like you’re providing great support already.

As a leader, there are two over-arching things you can do for your team: 1) help them focus, and 2) help them lighten up.

1. One technique that really helps me when I see my mind racing into the future, worrying about this and that, is to say, Let’s just focus on TODAY. I don’t know why, but no matter how hard things are I always feel like I can handle today.

You can help your team in the same way.

“What’s the ONE thing you can focus on accomplishing today?”

(Depending on how much stress they’re under, it might be a relatively small thing, doesn’t matter. The point is to give them clarity of focus — and the dopamine hit of accomplishing it.)

2. We all take things too seriously: Every leader needs to learn how to use humor as a pressure valve, to poke fun at themself or point out the absurdity of a situation.

SEALs are really good at this; I’ve noticed that they’re constantly cracking jokes, creating shared references that help them transcend physical suffering and scary situations.

When researchers studied Vietnam vets from the 1960s, some of whom endured seven years of mental and physical torture, they found that virtually none of them had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The common thread behind their resilience was a sense of humor.
(e.g. they named each building in the prison complex after a hotel on the Las Vegas strip, like “Stardust” or “Golden Nugget”).

🛣 On leading through uncertainty

Q: How can you make your team feel safe in times of high uncertainty and allow them to embrace it? It is difficult being a leader when you have no idea what the road ahead will look like.

The first step is to acknowledge that things are uncertain! Too many leaders try to pretend that they know when there’s no way of knowing. So you can always say to your team: “I know there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.” But there are also many things that you do know, so as a leader you need to get clear on what those are and make them explicit. So you can say things like:

“Here’s what I do know [the strategy is this, we’re going to test it until X date, here’s the goal…]”

This is the situation with the SEALs, for example. There are so many uncertainties when they’re on a mission because they’re going into situations where someone is actively trying to hide info: the terrain, how much firepower the enemy has, if the target is where they think they are, etc. But they’re always super clear on the mission, who plays what role;, how to be resourceful when there’s an unexpected development (they can’t blow the door open, for example) and, most importantly, how to communicate a change in plans.

😅 On the biggest pitfalls of new leaders

Q: 1) What do you believe are the biggest pitfalls of new leaders and how can we avoid them?

Biggest pitfall #1 is thinking now that you’re a leader you can start bossing people around, telling them what to do and they have to do it. (We see this with SEAL candidates all the time when they get promoted to commanding officer, etc. and they get taken down by their teammates and instructors FAST.)

Biggest pitfall #2 is thinking you have to know all the answers.

They both stem from insecurity. So instead of focusing on proving yourself — knowing all the answers, not screwing up — train yourself to remember that it’s not about YOU and shift your focus to what’s best for the “greater good” — the team, the organization.

It will help you get better information from others because you won’t be focused on “looking good” you’ll be focused on making better decisions. So your go-to line can be something like: “I know you see things that I don’t, what do I need to know from your POV before I make this decision?”

🔥 On prioritizing the right fires

Q: How you can make sure you’re focusing on the most important priority, and making sure nothing that’s key to the project gets missed?

This is going to increasingly become a critical skill as the world gets more chaotic. Two ideas:

  1. Have clear criteria for prioritizing (eg. revenue generating, client satisfaction, thought leadership, time required, info available, etc). Write them on a post-it so you don’t have to try and remember them each time, and check regularly whether what you’re working on is really important.
  2. Don’t try to think of everything yourself. One Navy Seal I know will put together a plan and then put it in front of the team and ask, “What did I miss?” (He says this from a place of confidence, not insecurity.)

Inevitably, someone will think of something you missed. Side benefit: knowing that it’s going to be under scrutiny helps you be more rigorous in your thinking before you put it out there.

On making time for your personal development

Q: How can I stick to the self-development goals I set myself and take the time for it during the week?

I think it’s hard to make changes in because we are so much on autopilot. The busier we are, the more automatic our lives. What I’ve seen is that most people’s “really small goals” aren’t small enough. They need to be “micro”. So tiny, that they’re ridiculous. And then, as you probably know, you need to tie it into something you’re already doing.

For example, when I wanted to start stretching more, I told myself I could only watch Netflix if I stretched and I started with pigeon pose (not practicing the splits).

I don’t know what you’ve written on your to do list but it should be super specific. Not “study personal investing” but “read Motley Fool article on X”. Or maybe even just first two paragraphs! The idea is to make it easier to do it than not do it.

Renita is one of the many leaders who share their advice in 2-min tips for Bunch. Download our AI Leadership Coach app to become a better leader in 2 minutes a day.

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Darja Gutnick

Co-founder, CEO at Bunch — Helping future leaders grow; bookworm, psychologist and relentless optimist. Grow | Inspire | Stay humble