Just last week, I sat down to a fascinating presentation from Lynn Leahy on the topic of stress among senior business leaders. As I looked around the room at the attendants, it was clear that many were experiencing that same stress and could benefit from building their resilience towards it.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the presentation and the topic of stress. In many ways, Lynn’s presentation raised a set of ideas that I’ve always thought were true, but have never quite been able to express coherently myself – which is certainly the sign of a good speaker!
After thinking about that presentation, I thought it was time to outline those key takeaways I took from that event and how it fitted into my own intuitions about the value of being a resilient leader.
The far-reaching impact of stress
If you are thinking about how you can better manage stress, the first step is to recognise just how damaging it can be to your productivity and ability to lead an organisation.
Of course, a little pressure can help us to perform better, but too much can have far-reaching consequences for your ability to lead, not to mention taking its toll on your well-being. Recognising this harm gives you the platform you’ll need to start doing something about it.
Building your self-awareness
Perhaps the biggest problem with stress is that we don’t see it. Stress is seen as a normal part of so many leadership roles that taking a step back and critically evaluating your own workload can be incredibly difficult.
Without giving away everything that Lynn said, one of the big takeaways for me was that stress isn’t just in your head. It can result in very real physiological responses like muscle tension, indigestion and disrupted sleep patterns.
There are also plenty of behavioural concerns that might point to a problem with stress. You could be drinking more, eating more (or less), finding yourself more irritable or just having unusual mood changes. All of these are symptomatic of a high level of stress.
The bigger picture of these direct symptoms is that you will lose focus and drive. If stress is a problem across your team, you won’t be achieving your joint goals.
Becoming a resilient leader
At the end of the day, stress isn’t going anywhere. Leaders aren’t going to stop putting in long hours or experiencing the strain of their role. All of us will, from time to time, find ourselves coping with stress in our own ways.
Resilient leaders will be those who are able to identify these symptoms in themselves and bounce back. They might have a few drinks after a stressful day – that’s only natural – but they are self-aware enough that this coping mechanism doesn’t become a few drinks every night.
In other words, a resilient leader is able to bounce back from stressful situations, while also seeking the feedback of those around them so they become better leaders after a stressful situation.
That touches on the other side of a resilient leader: They build resilient teams around them.
Developing a stress-resilient team
It isn’t enough to reduce the amount of stress that you are experiencing as a leader, you also have to look at your team. In fact, one of the key messages I get from Lynn’s presentation was the importance of meeting with your direct reports regularly.
In an ideal world, this would be every two weeks, but in practice an hour a month should be enough to keep in touch with your team. What’s more, this provides you with an opportunity to keep tabs on the stress levels of your staff and also track any improvements in their workload.
Yes, this might seem like a lot of time if you have a number of direct reports, but these meetings will always be constructive and rewarding. When done well, these one-on-ones can also provide an opportunity to really address the workload and stress levels your staff are experiencing.
The good news is that one of the best solutions to stress in your personal life is to build that support network around you. This could be within your organisation or just with people you know. However, they should all be people who are able to hold you to account and tell you if you are overworked or exhibiting those signs of stress.
At the end of the day, resilient leaders build resilient teams around them, who in turn can help them be resilient themselves. This virtuous cycle can never completely end stress in the workplace, but it can ensure it doesn’t become a destructive force within your organisation.