Stress Is Inevitable, But Effective Leaders Don’t Let It Control Them!

Posted by Rick DeMarco on 22 September 2015

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You’ve laid out a great strategy. You’ve done everything right. You made sure that all of the leadership team members were aligned around a common vision, culture, and strategy. You’ve communicated it consistently and continuously to all employees. You’ve made it clear how their work supports the delivery of that strategy. And you’ve created a culture of high engagement so that everyone is enrolled in achieving the vision and delivering on the strategy, exhibiting behaviors and attitudes that support your defined culture. And then it happens… A crisis hits. A competitor announces a surprise new product that will pose a serious threat to your market share. A supplier unexpectedly raises their prices, putting pressure on your margins. Or a key executive decides to join the competition.

You’ve heard the old saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. No matter how well you plan or strategize, things go wrong. And that introduces an element of stress into the equation. If left unchecked, stress can wreak havoc on an engaged and inspired workforce and undo everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish.

This is why effective leadership is so critical. It’s often said that organizations rise or fall on the strength of their leadership. So how does a leader deal with stress and how does that leader stop it from totally derailing a strategy?

First of all, effective leaders anticipate stress, fear, and doubt. Although the specifics of what generates that stress may be unknown, a good leader is never completely surprised when it rears its ugly head. As part of the planning process, a good leader spends time with contingency planning in anticipation of the unknown happening. No great leader ever assumes that everything will go perfectly according to plan and there will not be distractions or diversions. And if that leader does not take the time to do some contingency planning up front, there is the risk that a distraction can delay a strategy for an unnecessary length of time or worse yet, totally derail it. Effective leaders take the time to identify possible interruptions during the planning process and strategize potential actions in the event that they actually occur.

Secondly, from the perspective of inspiring and engaging others, effective leaders manage stress, rather than let it manage them. How a leader manages stress can either have a calming influence on others or create total mayhem. Think about a time when you were facing a crisis. If your leader behaved and spoke in a manner that made you think the sky was falling, you started on a downward spiral that was hard to reverse. On the other hand, if that leader continued to encourage the team and support the team, and assure them that we would get through this crisis, there is a sense of hope and optimism that keeps the team engaged and inspired. As I write this, I have this mental image of the old Seinfeld episode in which a fire broke out at an event and George Costanza ran to the door, pushing children and elderly people out of the way, yelling, “Fire!” 

When the unexpected happens, often stress takes control. Effective leaders may be taken by surprise by the actual details of the unexpected, but they are never surprised by its appearance. Take the time to do some contingency planning and think about what you might do if your plan comes under attack. More importantly, when stress rears its ugly head, don’t be a George Costanza! Serve as an example in how you respond to stress with optimism and confidence so you can have a calming and influencing impact on others.