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Leading Minds Executive Coaching on Managing Stress
Dr. David Brendel is the founder and director of Leading Minds Executive Coaching, LLC and is co-founder of Strategy of Mind, LLC. We recently checked in with him about the importance of stress management to leaders, here’s what he had to say:
In your mind, what makes someone a great leader?
Great leaders inspire people with their vision and values. They articulate clear goals and promote dialogue with others on how to shape and achieve those goals over time. In addition, they empower others to think for themselves and to develop into proactive agents for success. Rather than micromanaging, great leaders partner with talented individuals who can drive toward results in creative ways that draw on their personal strengths and unique work style. At the same time, great leaders are always emotionally present and available to support and help their collaborators or employees who might be struggling in some fashion. In these situation, great leaders ask powerful and open-ended questions in the service of fostering dialogue about possible new approaches and solutions.
What are the most common problems or frustrations your clients come to you with?
My clients are usually navigating through a major transition in their careers and/or personal lives. In some cases, they are stressed and overwhelmed by a recent job loss, negative performance review, financial setback or major loss (such as a divorce or the death of a loved one). In other situation, they are grappling with how to develop a new skill set in the context of a job change, such as a promotion from a highly technical job to a strategic leadership role in which they have to innovate, manage a team, and develop better communications skills and “executive presence.” When coaching these individuals, I aim to help them manage stress, develop self-awareness about their strengths, think creatively about next steps, and implement a clearly delineated action plan for adaptation and future success.
What advice do you find yourself repeating to executives over and over when it comes to improving how they lead?
Start with self-awareness – look inside yourself in an honest way. What are your values and what brings meaning to your life at work and at home? At the same time, are you taking good care of yourself? Early in my coaching engagements, I check in with clients about stress management and recommend a healthy sleep schedule, regular exercise, good nutrition and mindfulness strategies such as meditation worked into their everyday lives in a realistic way. When these basic buildings blocks of self-care and self-awareness are being addressed, the executive can then move onto higher order tasks such as strategic thinking, enhanced interpersonal communication, leadership presence and motivating others to be productive and to implement the vision of the company or organization.
Why is managing stress such an important component to being a more effective leader?
People think clearly and make sound decision when they are calm, focused and self-reflective. High stress levels are bad for the brain – they can result in faulty reasoning, poor planning, impulsive decision making, anger and irritability toward others, and (at times) disastrous outcomes for people and their businesses. With companies depending on the healthy brain functioning and social aptitude of leaders, the importance of stress management cannot be overstated. There can be a trickle down effect here as well. Stress is contagious. When leaders don’t manage stress appropriately, it propagates through the organization and other people suffer and under perform. On the other hand, mindful and focused leaders who display calm resolve under pressure tend to breed the same behavior traits in people throughout the organization.
What are some methods or strategies do you suggest to executives for managing stress?
I work with most clients in my practice to develop and adhere to a sound behavioral schedule which includes regular sleep, vigorous exercise, nutritious eating habits, mental downtime, quality time with friends and family, and other healthy behaviors. In many cases, I refer clients to a close colleague in my coaching practice (Emmie Roe Stamell) for a consultation on how to incorporate mindfulness strategies (such as yoga and meditation) into their routine. It is important for me to serve my clients as an accountability partner regarding stress management. At each session, I check with them about how their stress management techniques are working out, what might be getting in the way of adhering to the plan, and how we can continually adjust the plan to best serve their needs.
What role does a positive mindset play in someone’s ability to lead?
A positive mindset is absolutely essential for success as a leader. Cognitive psychology research has proven time and again that our thoughts drive our feelings and behaviors – for better or for worse. Leaders who choose thoughts that are positive, hopeful and visionary – yet tempered by reality – achieve far more than those who choose self-limiting beliefs about their potential. My job as a coach is to listen carefully to nuances of the words and beliefs that my clients express. Oftentimes I will point out self-limiting statements that are neither true nor productive for the client. Sharing this insight empowers the client to rethink his or her beliefs, and proactively to choose an accurate and hopeful mindset that’s more likely to engender success.
How can leaders adjust their mindsets to become more effective?
This cognitive adjustment requires self-disciplined work on the part of the leader. I frequently coach my clients to keep a daily journal of their negative, self-limiting thoughts. Reflecting on the content of the journal often highlights certain cognitive tendencies that hold the client back. When these tendencies are understood, the client can enact a plan to change the pattern of thinking in a consciously chosen manner.
A developing leader may need to practice literally discarding one thought (e.g., “managing the personalities on this team is a nightmare”) and replacing it with a positive one (e.g., “what a great opportunity to figure out how to lead a diverse team with a wide range of strong, interesting personalities”). Recent cognitive psychology research has demonstrated the powerful benefits of transforming thoughts about stress into thoughts about challenges and opportunities. Executive coaching can help certain leaders to develop this empowering habit of mind. I wrote about this process and provided relevant vignettes from my executive coaching practice in my Harvard Business Review article titled “Stress Isn’t a Threat, It’s a Signal to Change.”
Forming new mindsets and behaviors can be challenging. What are the keys to forming new habits that will lead to better leadership?
The answer here is the same as the answer to the question about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Repetition of positive thoughts and behaviors is absolutely essential in leadership development. Early in the process, leaders can benefit from having a coach or mentor who serves as an accountability partner to ensure that repetition is strong and continuous. As the habit takes hold, leaders can often sustain the effort with less external support or monitoring. Clients who are aware of the powerful benefits of new habits – along with the substantial risks of NOT making necessary changes – tend to remain more motivated over time. If and when they deviate from the plan, hopefully their own insight or feedback from a trusted colleague will help the leader get back on track quickly.