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How high is your boiling point?

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

As a kid living in Chicago public housing, Deval Patrick won a scholarship to a New England boarding school.

“It was my first time away by myself,” he says. “Woo, I was scared.”

He swallowed his fears and studied hard.

“I realized that at times like this, you must keep your head about you,” he says. “This is a lesson I have learned over and over again. Now I’m pretty cool under fire.”

Since then, Patrick has worked at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York, at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D. C., and now as the newly elected governor of Massachusetts.

Examples of Patrick’s calm under pressure:
  • At the NAACP, his team sued then- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas over voter registration inconsistencies. They reached a settlement that became the blueprint for state “motor voter” laws across the country. At the time, Clinton watched Patrick work a room and predicted that this cool customer had a future as a politician.

  • At Justice, Patrick oversaw several civil rights cases. In one, his team probed the bombings of synagogues and black churches in the South, coordinating with different government sectors.

  • Later, a federal court appointed him to oversee a racial-bias settlement against Texaco. Some thought his civil rights background would keep him from being a neutral arbiter, but he performed so smoothly that the oil company hired him two years later as its general counsel. Down the road, he took a similar job at the Coca-Cola Company.
Now, as a governor, Patrick is almost sure to come under fire. But what he learned as a teenager has become essential to his life as a leader: Stay cool under pressure.

—Adapted from “Mass. Appeal,” Kenneth J. Cooper, The Crisis magazine.

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