A leaders’ number one job is to develop high-performing teams under all circumstances. When stressful circumstances affect your team, they look to you to help them manage the situation in a way that ensures wellbeing and high performance. Managing stress improperly can result in less than desirable results for everyone.
Stress affects everyone. The deadlines, the heavy workloads, and the unexpected disruptions to the flow that you work so hard to establish can feel difficult to manage.
As a leader, you must be able to model and promote resilience, courage, and the ability to harness your energy for the good of yourself, your team, and your organization. You can do that by properly defining stress, standing on a strong foundation of values, having the right mindset, and relying on practical habits that establish a healthy relationship with stress.
There are two kinds of stress. Eustress is positive and motivating. It keeps you on task and helps you cross the finish line. Studies have shown that short-term stress actually boosts the immune system, can generate a breakthrough in creativity, and can build strength.
Distress is negative and can be debilitating. It occurs when the good stress builds up and becomes too much to cope with. You may lose confidence, have trouble concentrating, experience pain or disease, or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Great leaders build great foundations and can stay on course during stressful times. This foundation is primarily made up of your values, the mindsets you foster, and habits you keep that help you stay strong when things get tough. With a resilient foundation, you come out on the other side stronger and better for the challenge.
Using Values to Navigate Stress
Values are like a compass, a guide for leading yourself and others. When you know what drives you and is most important to you, stress feels easier to manage. You can get in touch with your values by thinking about what motivates you, no matter the circumstances.
Many leaders have values like growth, service, results, integrity, excellence… just to name a few. As an example, if learning and growth are top values for you, you can withstand pressure, uncertainty, or even loss when you stay connected to learning and growing from every experience.
You can then see stress as the pressure that you encounter when you are learning and growing. Stress gives you an opportunity to maximize your talents and to be who you are. In the right amount, stress helps you push yourself and your team to a level of greatness you can celebrate.
Mindsets that Change the Relationship to Stress
How you perceive stress is directly related to your mindset, or how you look at things. You are programmed to label events and situations as good or bad. Stress is minimized when you learn to choose to see things as neutral.
If you are leading your team with this mindset, it becomes less stressful to deal with changes, missed targets, or disruption. Instead, the team can see the latter as feedback rather than failure. It then becomes possible to evaluate for long-term learning and growth, focus on what can be controlled and improved, and identify future opportunities.
Healthy Habits for Coping with Stress
Great leaders consistently invest in themselves so they can lead from a position of strength and resilience. That means establishing habits that help you handle pressure, change, and disruption with greater ease.
These habits may include:
- Scheduled time for rest.
- Healthy meals.
- Mental stillness.
Many leaders follow established morning or evening routines. Some keep a strict diet or exercise faithfully. Some also swear by the practices of mindfulness (being fully present in the moment) or meditation (removing thoughts or focusing on gratitude or certain mantras). Others find journaling and reflection very powerful. The key is to find what works for you.
Additionally, research continues to support that all of these practices are effective for managing stress and directly impacting your health and wellbeing.
Hone in on Your Mental Wellbeing
Modeling a good relationship with stress is essential for your team and starts with how you internally manage stress. Mindfulness and meditation practices can be strong stress management tools, though they may feel a bit elusive if you have never tried them. They both help you stay present and remove thoughts that may distract you from your intended focus.
Mindfulness is mostly about being fully in each moment, leaving the past, the future, anything other than what is right here, right now.
Mediation puts your focus on your connection to a collective or source that is bigger than you, to specific thoughts or emotions, or even to create and experience outside of your current physical reality.
Mental rehearsal, also called visualization, is another form of focusing your mind on specific results you want, putting distracting thoughts aside. These practices can be done in silence, with music, or with a guide giving specific instructions. They allow you to take a break from your racing thoughts and the mental and emotional patterns you may be running that exacerbate negative stress responses.
There are a number of readily available resources, like apps such as Calm or Headspace, guided mediation videos, and books that expand on mindfulness and forms of meditation.
Write About It
Journaling can also be a helpful habit or tool for managing stress. Many leaders use this practice to reflect on goals and stay connected to them, to amplify learning, and to improve emotional intelligence. Journaling can clarify and analyze your ideas, increase creativity, or boost problem-solving. It can also help to focus on positive results and emotions that keep motivation high.
A benefit of journaling is that you can make it your own, such as journaling in the morning or the evening, freeform or with a structure. An online search yields a myriad of ideas for the practice. The possibilities are endless, and the result is often tied to wise perspectives and an improved tolerance to stress.
Find the Flow
Finally, some leaders spend as much time as possible in flow states as a part of their routines.
Flow states are described as very powerful states of mind where you are extremely productive and also feel great. You don’t have to force yourself to work hard. Rather, it seems to go automatically, as if you are “flowing” through your work. You may even lose track of time when you are in flow, achieving great levels of concentration without fatigue.
The formula for achieving flow is to have a single specific goal with an authentic connection to the meaning behind your work. Thus, your actions are being driven by both a personal and professional sense of purpose. The perfect flow formula challenges you to your fullest capacity. You can access flow states by establishing mental cues and routines to get in the state, and by eliminating distractions. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a great resource for learning about flow.
Your Plan for Managing Stress
All of these routines can have a substantial impact on your presence as a leader and how you relate to, support, and inspire a team to high performance. Having these resources at the ready for coping with stress equips you as a leader to embody the strong presence others expect from you, and to harness your energy toward building your team and experiencing success.
So how will you use this? Create your specific outcome for managing stress and using it to help you and your team to achieve high performance.
To strengthen your plan to harness your energy to manage stress and lead successfully, answer these questions:
- What do you want?
- What will that get you?
- How will you know when you have it? (What will you see, hear, and feel that will be your evidence of success?)
Determine three things you want to start doing. Plan specifically when, where, and with whom, if applicable. Add accountability by telling others about your plan, and even encouraging your team to do the same. Keep your boundaries when necessary to protect your new routines. Stay focused on your goal and take time to notice the evidence that you are achieving it.
Stress is a normal part of the human experience. You can learn to have a healthy relationship with it and use it to strengthen your leadership ability when it really matters. For more on leading teams through disruption, read Alice’s four-part blog series starting with part one.
Looking to strengthen other aspects of your leadership? Leadership coaching can help you build a foundation, offer self-insights, transform organizational culture and more. Get started here.
Alice Rocher utilizes her advanced education from the University of Texas at Austin and over 20 years of experience to lead, coach and motivate others to peak performance as senior leaders. She conducts customized, competency-driven transformational coaching using assessments, cutting edge techniques, and coaching methods.