Companies that are dominant in the marketplace have to contend with more pressure. Are there mechanisms for them and their leaders to better handle the weight of greater market, customer and personal expectations?

When Vishwanathan Anand sat down for Game 1 of the World Chess Championship, he had the full weight of hopes and expectations on his shoulders – the hopes of a home audience rooting for its cerebral hero and the expectations that the rest of the world had of him as the defending champion.

He managed this as best as he could, showing flashes of brilliance at different points of the tournament, before succumbing to the pressure, and conceding defeat.

As the incumbent or defender, Anand had to deal with more pressure than Carlsen, proving a truism that runs counter to the laws of physics – pressure is greater, closer to and at the top.

The scenario that played out at the World Chess Championship has many analogies in today’s competitive business environment where market leading companies, or incumbents, have to face the heat of consumer and market expectations. Whether it is Apple, Facebook, or Google, being an industry leader means that you have the entire world watching your every move. It is a paradoxical position to be in – a dominant spot that is yet tenuous and fragile. One misstep and there are any number of contenders waiting to rush in.

The psychological burden on businesses as they deal with this is not unlike what top players face on game day. Every day brings unrelenting pressure from different quarters – analysts, customers, and employees, all expecting and demanding more.

Dominant companies cannot afford to become complacent about their success. They have to be ready to: (a) Innovate faster than new entrants; (b) Improvise on plans as and when needed; (c) Build the strength and resilience to adapt to change quickly.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Innovation becomes a less than desirable goal if its results can cannibalize a company’s existing products. Improvising and changing course is not easy if you are a large company and have to take everyone along with you. And if a disruptive technology impacts the environment in radical and unanticipated ways, even the best of companies may be unprepared to adapt to the change.

From the challenger’s point of view, the vulnerability of the incumbent to market pressure and expectations creates some interesting opportunities. If they play their cards right, they can grab more market share or lay claim to a niche section of it.

On the individual leadership front, there is again an obvious correlation between proximity to the top and pressure. A business leader is answer-able to a large number of stakeholders – employees, customers, partners – and also responsible for the overall reputation of the company. These challenges, while daunting, can be handled by accepting that pressure is part of the job and that, on any given day, you will win some and lose some.

In addition, developing a code of functioning can give a leader something to fall back on in times of doubt or crisis. I have personally found the following tips useful in managing daily and ongoing pressure at work.

  • Focus on positivity: Everyone feels good about winning, while spirits sag in the face of failure. But these negative emotions can affect performance. Positive moods produce physical energy and the resilience to persist beyond setbacks.
  • Promote openness: Set an example by openly discussing mistakes and be receptive to constructive criticism. This will build the strength you need to handle change and flux in the environment.
  • Build yourself a good support system: Surround yourself with positive people and those who believe in the core vision and mission even if they don’t always agree on how to get there.
  • Don’t let yourself choke: Focus on your own strengths and leverage them extensively. Sometimes, business can be like a game of golf. You are your own worst enemy.
  • Celebrate failure: Accept the minor setbacks and battles that you may lose along the way. As long as you are still on course, these make you stronger and better prepared for the bigger battles and challenges that you will encounter.

Having run four marathons last year (including an ultra marathon), I have learnt that, after the first 15 km or so, there is a huge mental component involved in pushing oneself to the next milestone. This is true in business as well. A successful sprint through one short stretch does not mean that a leader can withstand the sustained pressure and uphill challenges of the long haul. Ultimately, the best way to tackle this is to start each day with the mindset that you are taking on the strongest and fiercest competitor out there.

Nikhil Arora is the Vice President and Managing Director of...