Blog — Leadership Development

Under Pressure: 8 Ways Leaders Use Stress to Get Better Results

Matthew Moore
Matthew Moore
Marketing and Production Manager
Under Pressure: 8 Ways Leaders Use Stress to Get Better Results
It is a myth that leaders are naturally pre-disposed to deal with stress better than us mere mortals. Instead, they find ways of dealing with stress that are to their advantage.

Whilst it is generally accepted that ‘stress’ is a bad thing, how you deal with it can quite often bring about success. Think of the things in your life you have achieved and ask yourself: didn’t they all require you to deal with a certain amount of stress? From the exams you took to obtain your qualifications, to getting up the courage to speak to the stranger that became your partner, via job interviews, speaking in public, motivating a team, pitching to a new client: all stressful things that lead to achievement.

Perhaps it is the difference between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’. Pressure itself is not inherently bad; indeed it is a requirement in most people to perform optimally. There is a tendency to be bored or procrastinate if no pressure exists: Justin Menkes, in his book Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, says: “We like challenge; we have to have challenge. It’s just that, if you overload and flood us, panic is what many people are talking about when they say ‘unhealthy pressure.’ The key is handling pressure without panic.”

Great leaders are often praised for remaining calm under pressure as if it is an innate talent that they are born with. A recent Harvard study suggested men with high levels of testosterone combined with low-levels of cortisol “may be especially likely to occupy high-status positions in social hierarchies”. Their rationale was that cortisol, what they call “the stress hormone”, inhibits the ability to make good decisions. So could it be that good leaders are pre-destined due the chemical balance of their brain?

Neuroscience says no, because the levels of these chemicals are constantly changing. Research shows that dealing effectively with stressful situations requires the ability to balance the chemicals in the best way, and there are skills that can easily be taught that do just that.

In a heightened emotional state, our inbuilt physiological reaction is ‘fight-or-flight’, honed over millennia of evolution to protect us from predators. Of course, in a business situation, neither is appropriate (or hopefully required!) but we still get the increase in cortisol our ancestors got, and this is when we freeze or start making mistakes.

We can counteract the ‘fight-or-flight’ impulse in a number of ways. For example, before competition, athletes use a technique of opening up their bodies – shoulders back, head up, standing tall – breathing deeply (bringing more oxygen into your bloodstream negates the impulse), and visualising their success. According to research carried out at Harvard University, this has the required effect of increasing testosterone and reducing cortisol by up to 30%.

From our experience, leaders have many ways of dealing with stress. Here are eight of the most common, either when facing a specific situation, or that can be incorporated into your routine/philosophy:

  1. Stay calm, remain fearless. See the situation as a challenge, not a crisis.
  2. Focus on the goal. Ensure the organisation is aligned towards it. As Menkes explains in his book, “Quite simply, great leaders equate progress toward this goal with emotional satisfaction. They are, ultimately, servants to their company’s most noble purpose.”
  3. Keep it simple. Find order in the chaos and maintain clarity of thought. Work on the things that really count. Don’t get emotional or defensive.
  4. Exercise. Multiple studies have shown that physical exercise not only reduces stress but also improve concentration by reducing anxiety, therefore leading to better decisions.
  5. Take controlled, considered action. Taking the time to reflect will reduce stress, improve clarity and increase your likelihood of resolving the issue; the act of doing something to resolve it will also reduce the pressure.
  6. Demonstrate realistic optimism. A positive mental attitude that is allied with a realism that sometimes things do go wrong. When they do, those setbacks should be dealt with and the lessons learned while maintaining the ability to stay upbeat about the future.
  7. Find balance. More than 90 percent of leaders cite they manage stress by temporarily removing themselves, either physically or mentally, from the source of their stress.
  8. Prepare for the unexpected. You’re much less likely to be stressed about something if you were expecting it. The trick is not to worry about everything that might happen, but to be prepared for it if does. A lot easier said than done!

The truth is that leaders are not born with the ability to cope with stress better than the rest of the population. They simply realise that dealing with stress and pressure is a necessary step on the path to achievement and instead of fearing it, equip themselves to make the most of it.

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