How to face up to the stress of leadership

Written by
Changeboard Team

04 Aug 2011

04 Aug 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Do you try & avoid stress?

In my position, I devote a lot of time helping leaders and senior managers to cut down unnecessary stress by becoming more relaxed and mindful. Yet, I spend an equal amount of time helping senior leaders to understand that stress and anxiety are essential components of effective leadership and change management. If you avoid stress entirely, you're avoiding real leadership.
Managing a team necessarily involves helping people to change - and this almost always results in stress. It's also what makes true leadership far less glamorous than many would have you believe.
So employees often reject stress, avoid change and in doing so, shun leadership. In the face of such hurdles, leaders are often tempted to try to reduce the anxiety. But stress and anxiety is necessary - without it momentum grinds to a halt and nothing changes.

Self-induced stress

One issue I encounter a lot is that, even before adding to the stress brought on by making leadership decisions, many managers are already suffering from too much stress that they impose on themselves.

They compromise their personal lives to keep up with their workload. They use self-defeating methods to provide comfort for their stress, such as drinking too much, eating too much, or popping pills. In short, a good many senior managers have forgotten what it is to relax and what it is like to feel well.

In some cases leaders are so addicted to the stress that they feel uneasy when they are not stressed and gulp down yet another coffee to keep the buzz happening. Chronic background stress is undermining their performance and many seem to have forgotten how to enact their natural relaxation response.

Despite being harmful, stress is often unavoidable and in many cases absolutely necessary if a team or company is to move forward. So what can we do to manage it as effectively as possible?

Here are some top tips for dealing effectively with stress in the workplace:

Tips for facing up to leadership stress

1. Do an audit of the times you avoid exercising leadership because it is too stressful for you. Maybe it is those situations which will involve conflict, or tough decisions which may make you less popular, or times when you need to go out on a limb on your own, or those occasions when calling things the way you see them will cause stress and anxiety for others.

2. Instead of avoiding leadership stress, treat it like physical exercise where the continual practice slowly builds up your level of comfort at experiencing the stress.

3. Alternate activities which cause leadership stress for you and others with other activities like routine business processes or some team socializing.

Tips for reducing unhelpful stress

1. Do an audit of how much you engage in addictive behaviours such as over eating, drinking too much alcohol, taking too much coffee, or popping too many over the counter pills. Also notice whether you are sleeping poorly, getting lots of headaches or other pains, or spacing out in front of the television and avoiding family and friends.  These can be some of the more obvious signs that you are dealing ineffectively with too much stress.

2. Regularly examine your own habitual forms of thinking and reacting and notice how your own recurring patterns are fuelling your own stress levels.  Practice accepting and then letting go of unhelpful thoughts and emotions.

3. Develop reliable ways for relaxing and becoming more mindful. Relaxation and breathing techniques can help, but the most powerful and reliable method is to meditate regularly.