Managing Leadership Stress

Written by on July 7, 2016

Managing leadership stress is critical. Leaders do not have the luxury of being grumpy or volatile in front of their people. Those are indulgences that you can no longer claim when you’re charged with leading people. Many people will never become truly effective leaders or have responsibility for others simply because they cannot hold themselves together well enough to be reliable for other people.

It’s not possible to eliminate stress from your world, so the only constructive way to approach the topic is to examine where personal stress comes from and then reflect on ways of managing it. For many leaders, simply figuring out where their personal stress is coming from helps them to manage it. A feeling of control over daily pressure and stress is rooted in an understanding of ourselves, and how we imagine stressors.

One way to know if a leader has been overstressed is when a kind of leadership “roleplaying” sets in, and it’s a problem for experienced leaders more than new leaders, especially for a leader who has worked with the same people over a long period of time.

This roleplaying mode sets in when the passion and excitement a leader has for his opportunity or his team begins to fade. This stressed leader starts to use a kind of pretend enthusiasm. He begins to hear himself saying the right things in the right way, but with a kind of detachment. The leader’s overall disposition and personality do not change, but he’s going about his job without passion and emotional engagement. He is just going through the motions. Any leader who has ever felt this will recognize it immediately when he sees it in someone else. It’s not that the leader wants to be careless, but he actually does care less than he used to.

What are some other stressors that can affect our ability to lead successfully?

Feeling Like You Are Doing Less Than You Can

Another big source of stress among high achievers and leaders is the idea that they’re doing less than they can. Most leaders consider themselves to be highly capable performers who can produce at a high level all of time. Realistically, this is almost impossible to do. Many leaders put intense pressure on themselves to perform at an incredibly high level all of time without making any compromises. It’s this prototypical highly ambitious and competitive A-type leader who is most likely to experience the kind of stress that comes from being unrealistic about her capability.

A person cannot be “on” all of the time. It’s not even in a leader’s best interest to try. Leadership is about balance and knowing when it’s time to turn things up and when it’s time to use the brakes. Deliberately slowing yourself down can be one of the hardest things to do. The leader must understand that every meeting is not “the” meeting, every month is not “the” month, and every presentation is not “the” presentation. Exceptional leaders have real perspective and learn that the ability to demonstrate this balanced perspective is as important for their followers as it is for themselves.

When managing an organization, you’ll have a thousand little “moments of truth” each week and it’s important to be able to differentiate them. Listed below are a few areas of confusion that can knock an otherwise capable leader out of balance if he doesn’t know the difference between:

    • Busyness and productivity
    • Hard work and performance
    • Completion and accomplishment
    • Being highly motivated and being hyperactive

Your people depend on you to model both goal-orientation and balance. Sometimes that means pulling back on the accelerator a bit. Allow yourself to do this and your team’s overall performance will increase while your personal stress level decreases.

Thinking about Yourself Too Much

“The greatest cause of stress is thinking too much about yourself.” I remember where I was the first time I heard that sentence. It was at a leadership seminar outside of Atlanta in the mid-1990s. The topic under discussion was stress and where it comes from. I didn’t accept this statement at first. I simply wrote it in my journal to consider later.

I’ve thought about it many times since then, and I eventually realized that it’s absolutely true. It’s become almost fashionable to be “stressed out” and to say so when someone asks you how you’re doing. It’s definitely a narcissistic comment because it then falls to the asker to query, “Really? Why?” and then the stressed person gets to list his unique challenges and issues.

Why isn’t being calm, peaceful, and serene fashionable? It should be. But instead everyone wants to claim that they’re very busy with important things. As a leader you have to think clearly about what is actually going on. It’s true, stress is caused by thinking about one’s self and one’s own situation too much. Maybe things are not going the way you hoped they would go, you have not had enough time to do something you want to do, you’re stressed because the month is looking bad, etc. A leader cannot get tangled up in this kind of thought and still be able to be responsive to his team and his family.

Simple worry is the biggest root of stress, both justifiable worry that your condition will worsen in some way and the kind of fictional worry that centers on things that will never happen.

Earl Nightingale famously said, “Worry is the misuse of the imagination.” I believe that most stress could fall under that same definition. The best way to escape from self-centered stress is to get busy doing things for other people. Actively seek out people in your organization to help and teach and pull your attention off of your own condition. Feeling and expressing stress are not going to help anything anyway.

We all have legitimate worries that should be taken seriously, but the rest of what we call stress is just noise and it’s not going to go away. The best course of action may be to make a positive impact on as many people as you can. If we can do this as leaders, at least the noise will be much harder to hear.

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