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How to Lead Well When Personal Stress Is an Issue
Leadership requires a level head, strategic thinking, and commitment, even when you don’t feel like it.
Nobody can be 100% on-point all the time.
Sometimes stress can be significant enough to affect a person’s ability to lead. Trying to power through stressful times as a leader might work some of the time, but other times it can lead to lapses in judgment or other problems.
Leaders at the top levels of organizations are human just like everyone else. Everyone suffers the “slings and arrows outrageous fortune” whether they’re the Prince of Denmark, the mail carrier, or the vice president for marketing. Positions of leadership are often accompanied by heightened visibility, however, and that visibility can magnify stress.
Examples of Major Stressors That Can Affect Leadership
Most of us are well-practiced in dealing with everyday stressors like spilled coffee or horrible traffic. But sometimes leaders must cope with bigger events, and they are expected to do so with dignity and grace. For example, the death of someone in the organization takes not only an emotional toll but a practical one too. Who will be able to fill those shoes, particularly if the person was well-loved?
When a leader faces a serious illness, either personally, or within the family, the tidal wave of emotion is accompanied by the stress of deciding how much to share with colleagues and how to fulfill work duties. On the flip side, when a leader welcomes a new baby into their family, the sometimes-overwhelming personal changes happen alongside practical planning for getting work accomplished.
Leaders cannot demand perfection from themselves, and they must understand that their honesty and transparency are appreciated by team members. In most cases, people understand, want to help, and don’t expect perfection during times of major life events.
Know and Practice Standard Stress Reduction Techniques
Taking a walk to clear your head really can help.
There will be days as a leader when you’re getting through it minute by minute. It’s at those times when you need to call upon practical stress reduction techniques to keep you on track. Here are a few that are widely used:
- Mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment with openness and acceptance. During times of stress, we tend to replay the past or worry about the future, and mindfulness brings us back to the here and now.
- Reframing – which helps you achieve three important goals of describing your situation accurately and without cognitive distortions, illuminating your ability to cope with the situation, and seeking a “redemptive” narrative where tough times ultimately bring about something good.
- Temporarily disconnecting – by stepping away from the desk, avoiding social media, and just spending a few minutes in a different headspace. Take a walk, play a game, watch a silly video, or just sit and breathe consciously for a few minutes.
- Avoiding multitasking – because it’s usually not as effective as tackling one thing at a time. And under stress, you’re far likelier to make mistakes when you try to multitask, which means you’ll have to fix those mistakes later.
The Importance of Boundaries
The ability to set boundaries between your work life and your home life is essential. There will be times when work life may spill over into personal life, and vice versa, but for the most part, you should have clear boundaries between the two. By separating the two, you position yourself to give each the attention they deserve. How you mark those boundaries is up to you. Some people have a playlist to listen to on the way home, or a particular coffee shop they stop at on the way to the office. There are countless ways to mentally mark the transitions between the personal and the professional.
Leadership coaching is not a substitute for therapy or for the types of professional help people need when they deal with major life crises. But leadership coaching can help people identify ways they inadvertently self-sabotage and limit their potential. The skills that leadership coaches work on with their clients, such as effective communication, delegation, conflict resolution, and time management, are ones that leaders call on in good times and in difficult times.
Nobody expects perfection 100% of the time, even from the most exalted leaders. Leading during times of personal stress is leadership on “hard mode,” but the skills you learn from leadership development programs, from personal experience, and from leadership coaching, stand you in good stead as you face those headwinds and move toward calmer waters.