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:
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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