Happy New Year! Welcome to 2018! As I sit in my office reflecting on 2017, I am amazed by the ground covered, the changes and adaptations that were made, and the transitions that have occurred in 2017. Many of you know that a big transition for me was the move to retirement. It’s been an interesting time since September.
I was listening to Bishop Coyner on Christmas Eve tell the story of the ‘retirement clock’ he received for Christmas in 2015 (he was retiring September 1, 2016). He set the clock and it began to count down the months, days, hours, and minutes from December 25, 2015 to September 1. On Aug 31, 2016 he stayed up to see what would happen when the clock struck midnight. He was secretly hoping that there would be something show up on the screen announcing his retirement – congratulations, something. At midnight nothing happened. He was disappointed. And then, a minute later, he noticed that the clock read 12:01; the clock was now a regular clock and was counting forward.
Bishop Coyner’s story helped me understand that my transition to retirement changed where I worked, and the number hours I worked, but that I was still writing, coaching, and working with individuals and organizations to help them be the best versions of themselves they could be. I had simply moved to another phase in life. There was still more to do and to be.
This month we explore the subject of ‘stress,’ specifically what we do, or don’t do as leaders when we’re under stress. Thank you for being part of the readership, and for many of you, thank you for your input and encouragement during 2017. May 2018 bring you the best of you and your life.
Do your best work and be well.
Leadership Under Stress
We all live with stress. Stress, positive and negative, has benefits. At a certain level, stress can help us ‘feel alive’; it gets the ‘juices’ flowing and helps us to be more attentive. In those moments we have a chance to feel ‘on top of our game.’ All of these are statements I hear about stress. Then, there is the other side – I feel overwhelmed. Our work, our lives have become too much. For some, their lives resemble the state of ‘overwhelmed’ daily. My son and his wife have a girl 3 and a boy 18 months. One, or the other of them, look tired and stressed much of the time. It is a normal state for most parents of young children. My guess is that many of us can identify one or more periods of our life when our life resembles more surviving than thriving.
We are wired with a remarkable system for survival. Our ‘fight or flight’ system is wonderfully built to help us evaluate and defend those things that present a threat. The system is designed to spring into action quickly and prepare our body and mind to be ready for threats. It’s primary function is to help the human specie survive. In today’s world, however, most of our threats are not of the type that will kill us in the next instant.
The hormone, cortisol, that is released by our bodies under stress, has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for our episodic memory); there is robust evidence that chronic stress causes premature brain aging and makes our brain more vulnerable to damage such as strokes, ageing, and stressful events.
What I observe in leaders (and others) during heightened periods of stress, is their increased tendency to spend more time in a heightened emotional state (emotional brain hijack), lowering their ability to be more objective and focused on facts. This further inhibits their ability to accurately understand their reality and make more rational decisions. Their companion is often fear.
From a coaching perspective, it is not uncommon to see leaders who have made many positive behavioral changes revert to old behaviors when they are under stress. It is a common progression, or regression, depending on how long the stressors remain in place. It takes a lot of discipline to adhere to what we have learned.
Our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is designed to narrow our focus to the immediate threat. That narrowing can be a huge inhibitor in our ability to make good decisions across a broad spectrum. Leaders with significant breadth of responsibility, are the most at risk of making poor decisions – decisions that can further enhance the threat(s).
Another dynamic at work under stress is that we tend to want more control over the situation. The need to share or give up control during times of stress is counter-intuitive, but is often what we need to do. This is another way we can regress in our development as leaders. Task driven, high results leaders are often the most at risk because they are the ones who will seize greater control when threats present themselves, limiting who they allow to participate, becoming increasingly irritable and impatient. Neither trait is useful when trying to make good decisions, and maintain the morale of the team.
The best leaders have created a ‘discipline’ to cope as stress increases. I have experienced the following ‘habits’ by the best leaders.
- They understand their tendency to jump to ‘react’ and to take action quickly. To counteract this, they spend more time slowing their pace. They use yoga, or other forms of meditation, to help calm their tendency to overreact. They learn to push the ‘pause’ button between the situation and their response.
- They pay more attention to their diet and exercise during these times, understand the impact these can have on brain chemistry.
- They are acutely aware of the tendency for emotional brain hijacks, and develop a series of questions that counteract this tendency; this allows them to remain calm and deal with ‘facts.’
- They enlist the counsel of others, not necessarily within their company circle.
- They communicate more about the external and internal environment and enlist members of their team to share the burden of defining the scope of problems and formulating possible solutions. (Comment: entrepreneurs often become inward focused during times of high stress. They would be better served, in most situations, to have trusted advisors to work with and listen to; those not as close to the situation are often instrumental in offering plans of action that are more broad-based in their thought process.)
- They work to check their ego at the door. Times of high stress can lead us to overestimate our abilities. This is another benefit of including others in the problem definition and solution process.
- They remain optimistic about their ability to solve for the stressors, while developing contingencies and timetables for implementing the contingencies.
The best leaders react to stress with more discipline, knowing that they are more at risk for making mistakes. They develop, ahead of time, personal habits for managing their stress, and work strategies that include others to spread/leverage the team’s capability.
What strategies have you developed to manage your stress at work, at home? Are these strategies working? How do you know? Where do those strategies need improvement? These answers could impact how you evaluate your satisfaction with 2018 a year from now.
To a better you…