How does a star trial lawyer beat back Bill Gates and AIG to win hotly contested legal cases? How does a chieftain at a financial services firm save company face before a Senate subcommittee? How does an actor deliver a brilliant monologue in a challenging and controversial play? And how does a sergeant guide his men to safety and save his commanding officer’s life while under enemy fire?

These are some of the examples that author Paul Sullivan lays out in his book: Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t.

Sullivan, the “Wealth Matters” columnist for The New York Times, argues that there is a real difference between some of the great sporting moments that we perceive as so-called clutch moments and others in many other situations.

The great game-winning shot may not be due to a clutch performance but rather on luck. To Sullivan, it appears that consistency of performance is a defining feature of a clutch performance.

Rather than laying out a chart of the five traits that comprise clutch—focus, discipline, adaptability, blocking out all distractions or being present and the twin faces of fear and desire—Sullivan illustrates many of those attributes admirably throughout the book published last year by Portfolio/Penguin.

The book is an easy read as Sullivan talks about those who choke under pressure (including himself as a golf player) and those who always seem to step up in scenarios that make other mere humans crumble.

Sullivan spent much time talking to his subjects such as trial lawyer David Boies who successfully represented the government in the antitrust case against Microsoft and represented Hank Greenberg, the former chief executive of AIG in a $4.2 billion battle against his old insurance company; actor Larry Clarke and playwright David Rabe in a restaging of the Vietnam War-era play Streamers; tarnished golf sensation Tiger Woods and several others. He brings a reporter’s touch to a subject that could have been a mere recital of incidents based on other sources.

Considerable time is spent on examples from the financial services sector–whether it is Mark Branson, the chief financial officer for UBS global wealth management testifying before a congressional subcommittee about the recent tax evasion scandal or the financial crisis and how it affected the reputations of J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Bank of America’s Ken Lewis. Obviously, Sullivan heralds Dimon as the clutch performer and Lewis as the man who choked. “The explanation for why this happened lies in the old-fashioned notion of personal responsibility,” Sullivan writes, describing what he considers to be one of the three causes of choking. 

While I don’t think that all Sullivan’s examples work (one of the entrepreneurs used to underscore fear and desire), overall he gives readers substantial real-life situations from which they can learn how to perform well and consistently in challenging circumstances. Sullivan makes one thing clear: becoming a clutch performer takes hard work. “Being clutch,” he writes, “means performing your best under pressure regardless of what that pressure is.”

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