Leadership: The Ultimate Stress Test

No matter your position or your industry, stress is something we are all intimately familiar with. From a to-do list that is somehow longer rather than shorter by the end of the day, to an email inbox that we can never completely clean out, today’s work environment is overwhelming employees and their superiors across the country. It is no longer a question of if one encounters stress in the workplace, but rather how they deal with it.

Overcome Your Own Self-Defeating Instincts

The human body’s natural stress response is engaged when we feel fear and uncertainty. This trigger demands that the nervous system prioritize survival over all else. Experienced in real life, this means that when you feel overwhelmed by stress, you’re least likely to do the precise things you most need to rebalance body and mind to skillfully manage the demands of the moment. Your likelihood to engage in beneficial activities such as talking a long walk, deep breathing, or reading are suppressed by your body’s survival instinct. Caught in the adrenal-cortisol cycle with no counterbalancing actions to mitigate the flow only exacerbates your stress. Be mindful of when you feel stuck in a corner so you can consciously override your body’s impulses to remain in a mode of fight-or-flight. Despite what your stress response is telling you, you absolutely have the ability to take brief moments to re-center to alleviate your stress and get in touch with your breath and body.

Prescriptive: Avert Stress Before it Happens

Taking care of yourself physically and mentally as a lifelong norm is a human best-practice. No matter your title, function, or field of expertise, the importance of getting in daily movement and eating right to support maximum brain function is paramount. This is even more important as leaders because not only do our actions have tangible ripple-out effects, but our visibility and influence means that when we model self-care as a success practice those around us are more likely to do so as well.

To balance self-care with an overwhelming schedule, remember four important rules:

1. Time waits for no one. Allow the fantasy that there will somehow be more time in the day to die. It’s just a recipe for life as it is to feel like a frantic nightmare. An overwhelming schedule for the day is just that; no magic time will appear, so it’s important to take action in support of yourself NOW.

2. Identify and commit to non-negotiables. They might include 5 minutes of calmative breath per day, integrating vigorous walking when you can’t make it to the gym, always opting for the healthiest option whenever you eat. When going to the gym, eating salads, having 20 minutes to meditate and other “shoulds” hit the fan, you already have a life support system in place.

3. Carpe. Carpe. Carpe. Seize every opportunity to better your body either physically or mentally. Silencing your phone, using 3 minutes between meetings to stretch, or taking a walking or stair-climbing meeting are all powerful proactive measures that remind your nervous system that this too shall pass.

4. Only you can prevent forest fires. As much as we all wish there was a benevolent overlord of self-care to enforce our best practices, the human stress response is our conditioned norm, causing us to sustain actions that lead to burnout. You are the only person responsible for taking care of you.

Remedial: Under Fire.

So let’s say you blew it. The project is going sideways with a lot riding on you. The company is suddenly plunged into reorg with tight deadlines and tough decisions to be made. Or maybe the pitch to that client meant a full day of travel playing with your commitment to sleep with no time to exercise and little control over diet only to end up at a swanky restaurant with far too many celebratory toasts (and meanwhile challenges of personal life continue). This is exactly the time for you to prioritize being grounded, centered, rested, and well-nourished. Hitting snooze isn’t going to give you more energy but 10 minutes of yoga might. That hangover won’t be helped by even the strongest coffee, but might be counterbalanced by cleansing breath or a walk. When you’re in the thick of it, in the hurricane of life, you have to be your own “eye” of calm.

Leadership Starts With Self.

Think about it this way: leadership is exerting skill in adversity, creating new possibilities, working for optimal outcomes no matter the circumstance. If you aren’t doing that for yourself as the owner-operator of a human life, how can you expect to do it in relationship with others? With an organization?

You know how you feel at your best. Don’t succumb to the myth that being optimal is up to happenstance. The people you interact with all deserve as much of that resplendent being as possible. Most importantly, so do you.


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