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.

Not only does cognitive intelligence go down under stress, so does emotional intelligence.

Key Components of SREI include:

  • Mood—awareness of the emotions you’re feeling
  • Energy level—how much zip you have at any given moment
  • Emotional control—how well you’re keeping yourself together (or not)

Increased emotional intensity, flying off the handle, putting off decisions, avoiding difficult conversations (or eagerly seeking them out) are all warning indicators. Also be aware of bodily indicators such as increases in heart rate and breathing, sweating, redness and blotching, twitching and hot spots.

“Getting the right amount of sleep does wonders for emotional intelligence.”

Another technique is simply to ask yourself how you feel. Bringing your emotions into consciousness is a great way to step back and regain perspective. There really is something to the old adage your mother told you about “counting to 10” before reacting.

As with cognitive resilience, getting the proper amount of sleep does wonders for emotional intelligence. You might have noticed that, when you are sleep deprived, it is not only much harder to keep your emotions in check, you are also much less aware of emotional cues from others.

When your stress management capacity, cognitive resilience and stress resilient emotional intelligence are working together, you have both the capacity and reserves to productively manage stress. In unison, these three aspects of stress resilience ensure that you are able to withstand the stress of leadership and avoid a catastrophic leadership failure.

7 Stress-Busting Practices for Avoiding Catastrophic Leadership Failure
In my coaching practice, I do an assessment called ARSENAL that helps executive leaders identify emphasis areas to increase their stress resilience. ARSENAL is an acronym for 7 practices to build your stress resilience. These practices are:

  1. Awareness: habitually monitoring your stress levels in terms of your SMC, CR and SREI
  2. Rest: allowing your mind and body to relax, regenerate and recuperate
  3. Support: the psychological, emotional and physical support you get from others
  4. Exercise: physical activity that builds cardiovascular fitness and physical strength
  5. Nutrition: what, when and how you nourish your body
  6. Attitude: mindset, happiness, optimism and contentment with your environment and those around you
  7. Learning: activities to increase knowledge, skills and abilities on an ongoing basis

Each of these practices is backed by solid scientific research that confirms their efficacy against stress. Putting them in play gives you the means to manage the relentless stressors you face every single day, without a drop in performance.

Having the discipline to implement these best practices on an ongoing basis is the key to increasing your stress resilience. The benefits are undeniable; however: leaders who are stress resilient are also healthier, happier and more productive.

That’s good for you—and for your organization.


Joe Scherrer: 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.