‘Clutch’: Why Some Succeed While Others Fail

What do Mark Stevens, Bernie Marcus, and Jamie Dimon have in common besides wads of cash and crazy success? In his new book, Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t, New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan argues that under extreme pressure, these business titans didn’t crack. In fact, they excelled. Drawing on years of research and recent examples like the financial crisis, Sullivan takes a look at the traits that make people across various fields succeed under high-stress conditions, which he refers to as “clutch,” while others choke. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Nayeli Rodriguez about what separates the two. Excerpts:

Rodriguez: Why did you decide to write this book?

Sullivan: I came at this trying to figure out why some people are so much better under pressure than other people. I really want to make a point that clutch is not luck. It is the ability to do what you can do under normal conditions but under extreme pressure. I define clutch as a combination of focus, discipline, adaptability, being present, and a balance of fear and desire.

What prevents most people from being clutch?

A lot of it is not having the skills to start off with. But so many of us also don’t focus. Focus on the thing you’re doing and have the discipline to say, “This is how I’m going to go about it.” You can be a longtime CEO and if you don’t know how to negotiate your world under pressure, you’re going to choke. A whole industry has sprung up around corporate leaders who need to be bailed out.

You say that a leader who takes responsibility is part of what makes him or her good under pressure. How does taking ownership of decisions help certain business leaders come through in the clutch?

When it comes to taking responsibility for the problems [an organization is] going to have—all companies have problems—the people who retain the trust of their subordinates are the ones who take responsibility. [An example], a year after Lehman [Brothers] collapsed [former CEO] Dick Fuld was still defiant. He said something like, “Until I die I’ll never know why they let Lehman fail.” To me that clearly shows how Lehman got into that situation in the first place.

Why are there so many examples of clutch and choking in sports and finance?

The stakes can be more clearly defined: you win or lose; you make the right decision under pressure or you don’t.

You talk about how certain women are what you call “double clutch.” What do you mean by that?

A lot of people say women can’t be clutch, but look at [tennis legend] Billie Jean King and what she did against [male player] Bobby Riggs: there was so much riding on that match. Had she lost, it would have been a loss to her as well as to what she was advocating. There was no women’s tennis tour before her. She was responsible for bringing equality to sports in a lot of ways, so there was so much riding on whether she won or lost. That was a double-clutch moment. So often in corporate America we think women aren’t good under pressure but…as Jack Welch said, women are just as good under pressure if given those opportunities.

You end Clutch on sort of an ominous note with your discussion of the “Tiger [Woods] conundrum.” How can someone who is clutch, like Tiger, lose the ability to perform under pressure?

People who are great under pressure put a lot of work into it. They’re focused; they’re disciplined and adaptable. But being great under pressure is something that you can lose. It was so clear that Tiger was on top of his game and one of the greatest athletes of all time in the clutch. But that didn’t mean he’d be great under the pressure of his personal life. And now that he’s pretty distracted we’ve seen him play not as well. Just because he’s historically been good under pressure doesn’t mean he always will be. Being clutch is a lot of work.