7 Secrets to Reducing Leadership Stress

If you’re a business leader, there’s no doubt that your stress level is off the charts. Perhaps it’s competitive pressures or underperforming financials. It could be dysfunctional culture, poor teamwork, ethical dilemmas, and lack of employee engagement. Maybe your job is on the line or your family life is on the ropes. Sometimes the stress is externally driven, sometimes it’s internal, and oftentimes it’s out of your control.

Stress in the workplace costs U.S. industry hundreds of millions of dollars every year and is linked to each of the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. And let’s not forget divorce. If not dealt with effectively, your performance—and your health—can degrade to the point of catastrophic leadership failure.

“To improve your stress management capacity, push the envelope of your comfort zone to expand your stress boundaries.”

All is not lost, however. Lessons learned from the U.S. Armed Forces’ experience in Afghanistan and Iraq have shed new light on stress and how to deal with it. They boil down to one word: Resilience.

According to Dr. Henry Thompson (2010), a former U.S. Army Green Beret, clinical psychologist, and author of The Stress Effect, the three components of stress resilience are: 1) stress management capacity, 2) cognitive resilience, and 3) stress resilient emotional intelligence.

  1. Stress Management Capacity. According to Thompson, your stress management capacity (SMC) is the “total ability the leader has to manage stress.” Every leader has a finite SMC capacity or comfort zone. Go a little above the comfort zone, and you begin to experience burnout. Go a little below, and rust-out comes into play. Burnout occurs while you are in periods of high stress, which is very common for executive leaders. I bet you’ve known leaders over the course of your career who look like a heart attack waiting to happen. You can literally see the stress coming off them.

Improving your SMC involves the systematic effort to push the envelope of your comfort zone to expand your stress boundaries. Influencing factors include:

  • Meaning—having a higher purpose for your life
  • Commitment—pledging to do your best
  • Control—your ability to mitigate stress
  • Motivation—strive to take action to deal with stress
  • Awareness—knowing when you are under stress
  • Reality—looking your situation squarely in the eye
  • Sensitivity—keeping stress in perspective
  • Coping—implementing stress-reduction techniques

As you work to expand your stress boundaries, your mind and body will attempt to maintain the status quo. So work on it bit by bit by attacking your smaller stress-inducers first.

  1. Cognitive Resilience. CR helps protect your memory, your ability to process information, the speed at which you process that information, and your facility for reasoning clearly. Signs of loss in cognitive functioning include forgetting details; slowing down to take in information; asking for information to be repeated; or having trouble with analysis, reasoning and calculations.

Focus areas for CR include:

  • Memory awareness—how well you’re able to remember things, both short-term and long-term
  • Information retrieval—how fast you’re able to access data from your memory
  • Reasoning sharpness—your ability to use the rational part of your brain to solve problems

One of the key enemies of CR is lack of sleep, especially chronic sleep loss, which unfortunately is endemic at senior leadership levels. It’s really important to know how much sleep you need and then to ensure you get that amount each week. Short naps can be a huge help in closing your sleep deficit.

  1. Stress-Resilient Emotional Intelligence (SREI). SREI is “the ability to resist the negative influences of stress on the emotional aspects of decision making by flexing and adapting to sudden change.” When stress levels go up, a leader’s ability to act in an emotionally intelligent way goes down, sometimes catastrophically. If you have low  emotional intelligence (ability to express and control your emotions, as well as to understand, interpret and respond to the emotions of others), you begin to miss important information coming from your own emotions, compromise your ability to accurately assess the emotions of others, or fail to act in an emotionally appropriate way.
Joe Scherrer is the author of The Leadership Forge: 50 Fire-Tested Insights to Solve Your Toughest Problems, Care for Your People, and Get Great Results. Click here for a free download of the ebook version. He is the President of The Leadership Crucible, an executive coaching, executive integration, and leadership development firm. Joe is a decorated Air Force veteran who deployed in support of seven overseas operations. His twenty-four year career included command of five units including the Air Force’s only combat-coded communications wing.