In a workshop this afternoon the group was asked to contribute qualities of leaders that we admired. Instinctively, and almost without thinking a familiar phrase flew from my lips.

“Grace under pressure”

This phrase was popularised by Dorothy Parker in a profile of Ernest Hemingway (1), that indelibly linked his description of courage – or something akin to it – with our understanding of the man and his writing.

In this carefully ambiguous phrase, Hemingway encapsulated an elegance and bravery that somehow resonates when I look at the men and women I admire. It somehow captures that essence of character and an aura of confidence that I would hope one day to project.

Equally, it is so ephemeral that it seems to defy further description or deconstruction, implying that like charisma it is something that we are born blessed with, but can no more learn or inhabit than we can learn perfect pitch or photographic memory.

Despite its diaphanous shroud I feel that it is a quality that we all recognise. If not in those people we have encountered in the real world, then inevitably in the wider cast of our cultural icons and archetypes. This ‘grace under pressure’ combines quiet confidence with the elegance of a steady hand on the tiller in an Atlantic storm, or the firm clear voice reaching across the radio waves to reassure comrades under fire or the multinational billionaire CEO who can talk with absolute authenticity with every man and woman in his organisation.

A light touch that exudes confidence. A strength that is woven with gentleness. A voice reaching out of the darkness to lead you to safety.

This is different to heroism, which is exemplary behaviour under extraordinary circumstances. Heroes are forged in a moment of time when individuals choose to stand up to force the hand of destiny for themselves and those they hold dear. ‘Grace under pressure’ is that fine thread of consistency that is shot through a lifetime. There is no difference in the delicacy of presence apparent in making a cup of coffee, as Philip Marlowe does whilst at gunpoint in ‘A Long Goodbye’ (2), to the Captain who ushers the last of his passengers into a lifeboat before sinking with the ship on which he stands.

Clearly, courage is a component. More important is that to be courageous you need to put yourself where you are at risk. This, of course, need not mean that you are physically in the firing line. Rather, it can be your values, your beliefs and your morality that are exposed as you as a distinct and individual being are tested.

This is not a quality that is reserved for those who are leaders. In Hemingway’s work these men – and in this case there are always men – are often outwardly ordinary, impotent or cuckolded. They are, that is to say, unremarkable but for this very essence.

Unremarkable as I am, this ‘grace under pressure’ is not a quality that I possess – or at least not in the way that I so admire in others. I tis exactly that essential consistency. I lack. am too much behold to my emotional ebb and flow, either surpassing my feelings unhealthily or succumbing to the inevitable irrational outbursts. More vitally, through my self-absorption I lack that care and respect of others, veering from aloof distance, to eager-to-please clowning, to childish withdrawal.

Most importantly I ask myself whether I have that key courage of conviction.

It is not the courage that is the problem. I can be wilfully, nihilistically brave – usually because I only offer stakes that I do not value and would in some sense happily lose.

So that leaves the convictions., those core beliefs and values that are sacrosanct, immutable and that you hope will outlive you. This is, I sense, the foundation on which that ‘grace under pressure’ is built.

It is these convictions that I am beginning to understand sit at the heart of good leadership.

Before you can lead, you must understand what drives you. In the seminars and workshops we have been working through, this is what is alluded to as ‘the vision’. However, the vision is actually the outward and external mirror of the internal fire that fuels our endeavours.

Most importantly, this is a fire that burns even when we fall short and fail. It is exactly then that this ‘grace under pressure’ is manifest. Even when we did not succeed, we did not compromise. We were driven by a vision not of how our world was, but of how it could be. We devoted our work to realising our dreams, living and breathing what we believed.

How could you not follow someone like that?

“If we win here we will win everywhere.

The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls


(1) The phrase ‘Grace Under Pressure’ was first used in a letter by Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald (20 April 1926), published in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917–1961 (1981) edited by Carlos Baker. In the letter, he wrote that he was “not referring to guts but to something else.”

(2) ‘The Long Goodbye’, Raymond Chandler 1953

Photograph from Henry V, directed by Roland Smith for Theatre Delicatessen (c) Lorna Palmer