If you’ve ever flown in a small private plane when the pilot cuts the engine, you know what it feels like to lose altitude really fast. It’s terrifying and nauseating, like a sudden shift to zero gravity. And, as long as you don’t panic, it can be a blast.

You’re probably wondering why a pilot would stall a plane on purpose. Practice.

If a stall happens around takeoff or landing, the plane’s so close to the ground that, to avoid a crash, the recovery routine must be automatic. Pilots practice over and over so it becomes part of their “muscle memory.”

When you face your fear and practice, that experience creates confidence and courage, which, along with muscle memory, helps you to remain calm and perform under pressure.

It’s the same in business, especially management.

I can’t tell you how important it is for executives and business leaders to remain calm when all hell is breaking loose. The higher you climb up the corporate ladder and the more risk and responsibility you take on, the more important that becomes.

When you’ve been around long enough, you’ll have survived lots of situations where things go terribly wrong. That’s a good thing. Those experiences will serve you well down the road. Your ability to stay calm and make smart decisions under pressure is a critical career success factor.

I’ve faced all sorts of blood-curdling crises over a long and interesting career in Silicon Valley and beyond. Each one added confidence, courage and muscle memory for the next one.

There’s an old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.” While it sounds like a blessing it’s also thought to be a curse. Perhaps I have been cursed to “live in interesting times,” but I don’t see it that way. For me, it’s been a blessing.

I’ve often described the feeling of managing a crisis as being on autopilot. You just get in the zone and know what to do. It’s a combination of muscle memory, confidence and courage at work. Without practice and experience, that never happens.

May you live in interesting times, and I mean that in a good way.

Image credit Matilde Zacchigna via Flickr

A version of this first appeared on FOXBusiness.com.

  • Barry Duck

    Great post I relate it to SCUBA diving, when teaching the class I would come behind them while in the pool and knock their mask off or pull the regulator out of their mouth to see how they handle it. They get where they can recover automatic. Because at 90 feet you have no choice, its better to learn these skills at 6 feet. It does relate to industry. I had an employee one time that did not know how to work a fire extinguisher, we had a fire he grabs it off the wall pulls the pin and throws it into the fire like a hand gernade. You can’t make this stuff up.

    • Bucha

      Wow! I wish I had such a teacher when tried to learn to SCUBA! Just snorkeling now.

  • Monty Gry

    I always say that in a crisis you are allowed to panic…but only for about 3 seconds. Then the muscle memory, experience and harder work can get you out. Have just a brief period of cloudiness, then calm it down and work through it. Telling people to “not panic”, “stay cool” and “relax” often does the exact opposite of what you desire. How many times as married people do we tell our spouses “Just Calm Down”….the situation escalates. Allow for the panic, but get out of that quickly.

  • Tom

    Good advice to those who have never experienced such calamity yet and reassurance to those who have been to hell and back.

  • Bucha

    Have been there many times in business and in life. Even saved a life. But all the time was terrified, sometimes for weeks. Never got better.