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How to Reduce the Stress of Leadership Without Losing Your Edge

“No pressure, no diamonds.” Thomas Carlyle

As a leader, you thrive on stress to some extent. It’s what gives you the “juice” of excitement and energy.

That’s probably what attracted you to your position.

You wanted the responsibility. Challenge. Excitement.

Because it’s very satisfying to take on leadership responsibility and see something through to a successful conclusion.

At times, though, the stress can be too much.

It can become a problem.

Maybe even a major hindrance. Particularly over time.

The longer you are in your role. The more your responsibilities grow. And the more the challenges mount, the more you need to become a manager who can manage stress well.

That’s why it’s worth exploring stress management strategies that work for leaders.

What are the effects of stress on leadership?

Even the founder of stress theory would tell you that there is good stress and bad stress.

He uses the fancy terms eustress for beneficial stress and distress to mean the bad kind.

As a leader, you would recognize this from your experience.

The more you are challenged, the more you heighten your performance.

That’s the good part.

And then, demands on you become too much. You go into distress, and exhaustion.

Without any stress at all, you would be bored. But with too much stress, you crack.

The key is figuring out how to maintain some sort of balance.

Acute stress and chronic stress

Of course, all stress is not the same.

The first breakdown leaders need to consider are immediate stress and ongoing stress.

Short-term stress is intense and lasts anywhere from minutes to days. Maybe you are going live with a new system or responding to a crisis.

Long-term stress is milder but may go on for weeks, months, or even years.

The effects of each are different.

Your reaction can be impaired by limiting your focus too tightly in a short-term event, where maybe a bit of tunnel vision causes you to miss some things in the bigger picture.

In extreme situations, this kind of psychophysiological link might cause you to panic in the heat of the moment during a short-term event.

That can be problematic or even dangerous.

If your ability to react well is worn down over time, it can lead to starting to withdraw or increasing a sense of helplessness.

This can lead to serious problems like burnout or depression.

I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t medical advice. I’m simply pointing out that the research is pretty clear that stress is bad for you in different ways, and that short-term or acute stress impacts you differently than long-term or chronic stress.

Leadership functions and stress

We can also look at how stress affects leadership capabilities in particular.

Let’s consider four of the primary tasks of a leader:

  1. Gathering and analyzing information.
  2. Developing possible solutions and understanding the trade-offs (cost/benefit etc).
  3. Determining a plan or course of action.
  4. Implementing the solution.

Stress can impact each of these areas in different ways.

Your ability to handle cognitive complexity, think creatively, and be empathetic are affected as stress excites your inner systems.

Under acute stress, this excitement can help a leader to increase drive and energy to take in and process as much information as possible and to work long hours.

At the same time, there is a risk that a strong drive toward the goal can actually hinder functions like creativity, objectivity, and empathy needed to be most effective.

Over prolonged periods of time, drive can be driven out of a leader as they become desensitised to the pursuit of reward.

Leaders in this position may start to defer and deflect things that increase cognitive load. Their motivation and energy can erode.

A downward spiral can lead to a not-so-good place.

How should you handle stressful situations?

All of this opens up the question of how leaders should think about approaching stressful situations and stress in general.

On the one hand, we see that good stress can be healthy and productive. That’s what makes the work exciting and enticing.

But we also see that too much of a good thing can lead to really bad outcomes, for the people and organizations we lead as well as for ourselves.

So, what should we do?

To answer that, we should look a little more closely at the sources of stress that leaders face.

Where does all that stress come from?

Leaders experience stress from bosses, peers, direct reports, and customers.

The most stressful demands placed on leaders from all these directions are caused by trying to do more with less, and to do it faster.

In that context, leaders are working on relationship building, dealing with conflict, decision making, and job responsibilities.

That’s a lot to juggle.

All these demands are all mixed together on the shoulders of a leader. And the dynamics are constantly shifting over time.

Of course, while we most commonly point to a lack of time and resources to deal with all of this effectively, an even more fundamental theme is interpersonal relationships.

Everything a leader does involves dealing with other people. That’s where a lot of the complexity and nuance comes from.

And that’s why, while intellectual capacity is important to manage the cognitive load placed on leaders, emotional intelligence is just as important (if not more important).

And it’s all personal. Here’s the definition ofl Emotional Intelligence:

A person’s innate ability to perceive and manage his/her own emotions in a manner that results in successful interactions with the environment, and if others are present, to also perceive and manage their emotions in a manner that results in successful interpersonal interactions.

While we think of Emotional Intelligence in the context of working with others, the definition doesn’t actually require the presence of others.

Know thyself first.

This, I believe, is the key to dealing with the stress of leadership. Because the first person you have to lead is yourself.

What are effective stress management techniques?

There are a few critical factors that can magnify or diffuse stress for us.

Factors that increase your perception of stress include:

  • Negative outlook
  • Uncertainty
  • Judgement of social status or achievement
  • Sleep deprivation

Factors that mitigate your perception of stress include:

  • Positive outlook
  • Sense of control
  • Sense of purpose
  • Social support

Given these, we can find solutions that focus on shifting our perceptions so that we have the best chance of minimizing and mitigating the effects of stress.

The stressors come at us from many angles, in different intensities, and in ways we can’t control.

We need to react. But, we can do better by choosing how we respond.

Our reactions are automatic, real, and sometimes intense.

However, we can greatly impact how we perceive and respond to those stressors. We can exert more control than mindlessly reacting.

Negative or positive outlook

Anything that can impact your overall outlook on things–work, life, or a specific situation–can help you deal with stress more effectively.

This is why I think so many successful people talk about morning routines. I’ve gone deep down this rabbit hole myself.

Because starting your day in a decidedly positive way can greatly improve one’s outlook.

That’s why I have a healthy “success shake” every morning, sometimes watch funny YouTube videos to start the day, or randomly texting silly “dad jokes” to my friends.

All of that puts me in a good mood and helps me feel a little more in control of my day.

An extreme take on this idea is the Stoic approach of “negative visualization.” By imagining a loss of wealth, status, or a loved one, it helps to gain this perspective. And also to appreciate the thing that you have or person in your life more right now.

Others would perhaps maybe just look up at the stars at night and realize how insignificant all the daily drama can seem in the truly big picture.

Any or all of these things that can help to adjust or reset your outlook can be an effective way to cope with stress. All of them seem to be more effective if done regularly over time.

Uncertainty and sense of control

This is a more direct way to respond to stress for leaders, I think. Because there are usually concrete steps that you can take to lower uncertainty and to increase a sense of control.

That includes things like understanding that your job isn’t necessarily to do everything but to decide what needs to be done. This is something that trips up new leaders in particular.

Another important realization on the front end of the incoming work is to realize that while you often can’t outright refuse a request, you can negotiate important parameters.

You can work to bring clarity to the definition of goals and objectives, negotiate timelines, request more resources, and share work and responsibilities in creative ways.

So many things that come to us these days are ill-formed requests. Our job isn’t to take the half-baked idea and figure out how to put on a polished banquet.

We need to co-create and develop ideas with others and shape them to fit the real world.

Rather than put a lot of energy into generic angst over some project, it is better to give it more definition and to start to shape the path forward. Even if it’s going to be a long road, having a sense that you are doing something about it can go a long way toward reducing stress.

Judgement of social status and sense of purpose

When we look at things like concerns about how we are viewed (on the negative side) or having a sense of purpose (on the positive side), things get a little more personal.

How we perceive ourselves is important. It becomes part of our identity. And nothing is more influential to us than our own sense of identity.

A useful way to stem the tide of stress in this area, I think, is to take a good long look at what you value in terms of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Humans will find more solace and satisfaction from intrinsic motivators than extrinsic ones.

So while a title or award or praise from the boss may be something worth pursuing, it should be considered less valuable than serving your own sense of the importance of what you are doing.

Sometimes if I’m working for a boss or organization or project that I’m just not that into, I might assign a larger sense of purpose to it.

That way, I don’t have to view my primary driver as something like increasing the bottom-line of the company that I might not be all that excited about.

Instead, I might view my efforts in helping others be successful and grow as individuals during the course of the project as something that really jazzes me up.

The other thing that helps me personally is to examine external measures more objectively.

I might feel bad if I don’t get a proposal approved, but if I can validate with others who I respect that it was a well-constructed proposal presented cogently and professionally, I can at least rest knowing I tried my best.

Sleep deprivation and social support

This category is all about taking care of yourself. Call it work-life balance if you want, but it’s all about having the leadership gumption to enjoy life.

The days of the “company man” sacrificing everything for the corporation are long gone for good reason.

That’s not a healthy way to live.

Taking care of yourself is job one as a leader. That means rest, exercise, eating healthy and all the rest.

But, of course, you are not a machine. This isn’t a leadership challenge to optimize your productivity to the extreme.

Getting in great shape so that you can work more is not the point, though it is an actual benefit.

The point is to establish relationships with others in your work and well beyond those walls.

Family time, friend time, and personal adventure time should be viewed just as important as the work you are dedicated to doing well.

The sort of weird thing about that is that expanding your horizons in this way can also help you be more effective at work. Many of the best ideas and inspirations come from one field and are applied to another.

The creative problem solving you learn from managing your local hockey league, learning how to fly fish, or doing home repair can help you in your day job. So can the lessons of patience and persistence from learning to play a musical instrument, write a novel, or bake fancy desserts.

But more important than expanding your horizons on a skills front, is building and maintaining healthy relationships in the broadest sense. You need to see yourself as bigger than your job, because you are.

It’s a shame that in our society the first question we ask new people we meet is “what do you do?” rather than “what do you like to do?”

Cultivating this larger sense of your humanness, and helping and supporting others in this way, is a great way to support yourself and others who are dealing with all kinds of stressors.

Your stress management plan

Leaders experience a unique kind of stress. Bosses, peers, staff, and clients are all sources. Everyone demands more be done with less. And that you do it faster.

Not only do you need to handle all of your job responsibilities, you need to manage a large number of dynamic and challenging interpersonal relationships.

Which puts your emotional intelligence in high demand. And why it is one of the most important skills you can build in order to diffuse stress and create success.

At a personal level, this means taking the leadership responsibility to know and lead yourself. So that you can take on all of the leadership tasks of gathering information, evaluating options, making sound decisions, and implementing plans successfully.

By managing your outlook to be as positive as possible, you help to mitigate and alleviate stress. Putting things in perspective helps tremendously.

At the same time, exerting more control by taking the first steps to assess things and starting to make plans helps too. Once you actually get started, you can feel better. Because you have shifted from worrying about the thing to actually dealing with the thing. This improves your sense of control.

Finding your intrinsic motivation can really help too. If you can feel good about server a larger purpose, even if it isn’t perfectly aligned with the project goals, can really improve your personal level of satisfaction.

Last but not least, taking care of your health and well-being is crucial. Not only because it improves your actual job peformance–a healthy and well-rested contributor is a strong contributor. But also because outside interests and experiences can make you more effective.

And, of course, cultivating personal relationships is necessary for happiness as a human.