Why some leaders thrive under stress and how you can do the same
There are times in our lives when we wonder if we are ever going to make it. We see others succeeding and moving far ahead of us, while we struggle to deal with the roadblock just ahead. We feel the desperation of wanting to find a way out, and the frustration of seeing failure at every turn.
Stress can be a devastating psychological condition, which can lead to loss of sleep, headaches, loss of appetite and vulnerability to diseases. Some of us are able to cope well with stress, but many of us may just choose to give up when the going gets tough.
The truth is, even the most successful leaders, have at times experienced periods of intense stress. The difference is that those who succeed are able to cope with stress and not let it impede on their lives. We will explore some of the elements that set apart leaders who successfully handle stress from those who do not.
Grit: Flexing your stress tolerance muscles
A vital ingredient that separates resilient individuals from quitters is grit. According to Angela Duckworth, professor at the University of Pennsylvania who popularised the term, grit is a combination of perseverance and passion to fulfil one’s long-term goals.
For a long time, researchers have been trying to figure out why some people, when exposed to stressful situations, reach their breaking points sooner than others. Duckworth had been wondering the same when she began studying army cadets at the US Military Academy, West Point.
West Point has more than 14,000 applicants a year, of which only 1,200 will be selected for their rigorous programme, consisting of strenuous round-the-clock physical training and classroom study. Many find this exceedingly stressful and about one-fifth of cadets dropped out.
To the surprise of many, Duckworth found that it was not examination scores or expert judgements of cadets’ talent that led to successful completion, but their level of grit. She also found that grit is important in other settings including the workplace, school and family. But can we make ourselves grittier? If so, how?
Tip no. 1: Build perseverance through practice
Thankfully, grit is like a muscle for stress tolerance; it can be strengthened through exercise.
According to Duckworth, gritty individuals who are at the top of their game carry out deliberate practice. To understand the concept of deliberate practice, imagine the difference between recreational runners and professional athletes. Recreational runners rehearse the same routine – jogging the same number of miles for the same duration every weekend; while professionals seek to improve their craft, setting stretch goals like more challenging time limits, and longer distances, to push the boundaries of their ability. The result of this is that the skills they worked hard on will come smoothly, effortlessly and automatically to them.
Constant improvement and the pushing of one’s limits is the hallmark of deliberate practice, as leaders like Steve Jobs knew perfectly well. Public speaking is often claimed to be the thing people fear the most, above death. “Olympic heavyweights” of public speaking, such as Jobs, know the importance of preparation. When he practises for a presentation, he puts his heart and soul into the rehearsal, making sure the stage is set up the right way, and meticulously improving his performance to better capture the audience’s attention. The results are nothing short of spectacular.
Tip No. 2: Find meaning in your work
Gritty, tough leaders are also those who have passion for their goals. Resilient leaders feel that what they do is meaningful. According to Duckworth, people can either see their work as a job, a career, or a calling. People who perceived their work to be a job will only do enough to keep it. People who see their work as a career believe the work they are doing now is merely a stepping stone to a position of greater power, prestige or financial rewards.
The final type, people who see their work as a calling believe that what they are doing is good in itself and truly contributes to others. Studies have found that those who are driven not only by love of their jobs, but by their belief that their job has purpose, are more resilient to the rigours and challenges of their occupations.
Think ‘actionable’: Regaining control of life
Besides building a strong resistance against the negative consequences of stress, resilient leaders also focus on regaining control of the situation.
Tip no. 3: Clarify your low-level goals
Although keeping your higher goals in view is important for success, we also need to be highly aware of the lower-level goals. Many people get stumped because they have not clarified the specific checkpoints they need to accomplish before getting to the bigger goal.
Management expert, Peter F. Drucker advocates using the acronym, SMART, as a guide. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Although one should have ambitious goals like “make a million dollars” or “be an awesome manager,” those goals do not tell you what you need to do. Examples of SMART goals include “Come up with a five-page business plan by Tuesday, 5pm” or “Develop an improvement plan for cutting costs by Aug 31, 8:30am.”
These goals guide our actions more effectively because it tells us exactly what we should do to get to the larger goals (Specific and Relevant), and how much time and effort we have to put in (Measurable and Time-bound).
SMART goals also have to be Achievable – it’s better to win many small victories that bring us closer and closer to our final aim, than to procrastinate and stumble over vague, unattainable goals. In addition, small victories can encourage us and help keep the fuel burning.
Tip no. 4: Focus on change
One of the contributors of distress is the feeling of hopelessness – a state where you feel you could do nothing to change the situation. One way successful leaders counter stress is by having what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” as opposed to a “fixed mindset.”
To understand this concept, imagine that you are faced with a difficult challenge at work or school, and fail at it. It could be doing an exam on a hard topic or a sales pitch to a demanding client. Someone with a growth mindset would say “I didn’t try hard enough” or “I need to try a different strategy.”
Someone with a fixed mindset would say “I’m stupid” or “I don’t have the talent.” When faced with failure, people with a “growth mindset” attribute the cause of failure to something they can improve on; those with a “fixed mindset” believe that things happen because of something they cannot change, like “talent” or “intelligence.” Dweck’s research has shown that people who have a growth mindset are more likely to be successful in distressing conditions, because they see obstacles as a chance to learn and grow.
On a similar note, positive thinking is also a valuable strategy to cope with stress. It would not hurt to have a positive outlook when the situation takes a turn for the worse. Although channelling positive vibes alone may not solve all your problems, it can be valuable to strongly believe that you are capable, and that you can get through tough times and end up a better person. Studies have shown that telling yourself encouraging things (a strategy called “positive self-talk”) can be very effective in helping you get a grip on yourself, and keep you steady when encountering difficult challenges.
When the going gets tough, how often you conjure up positive thoughts, like I can do this, I have faced tougher challenges, I will not let down those who put their faith in me, can make a difference. Those who tell themselves negative things, like how pointless their actions are, end up less motivated to work harder on a problem – which brings them closer to failure.
As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Decluttering: Bringing focus to your work
Leaders can also cope with stress by “decluttering” or prioritising on the important, while clearing out the unimportant.
Tip No. 5: Mono-task, not multitask
In a series of alarming studies, Clifford Nass, who studied multitasking at Stanford University, found that heavy multitaskers were poorer at focusing their attention on particular tasks and performed worse than those who rarely multitask. Multitasking is sometimes lauded as a valuable skill, but research by Nass has revealed a darker side to it. Doing tonnes of busy work may give one the illusion that a lot is being achieved, but studies have shown that multitasking is bad for productivity.
In fact, it is more productive to focus on high priority tasks first, creating a schedule to complete a small number of tasks in sequence. Lumping similar or related activities together is also an efficient way of getting things done. This is because our brains have different “modes” for different activities. Changing from one activity to another forces your brain to switch modes – which can be very disruptive for your brain.
Your brain also has limited attentional resource; when it spends too much of its resource paying attention to one task, it will have less for another. You may well be working at a suboptimal level when you are trying to finish a write-up while on the phone, for example. These “focusing” strategies are applied by some of the most prominent leaders of highly successful companies.
Jobs approached his work in a Zen-like fashion. One of his main contributions to Apple was reducing the number of products that the company was offering, preferring to devote his attention to just a few key projects at a time. This both reduced the need to spread his resources thinly, and helps customers focus their decisions by winnowing out unattractive offerings.
Tip No. 6: Manage your time and resources
In their book, 10 Steps to Mastering Stress, mental health experts’ David Barlow and his colleagues have underlined some of the ways you can declutter your schedule, based on extensive experience working with those who successfully handle stress. They suggest listing down the things you have done for the day, and make note of:
1. Things you should have done (i.e. Priorities)
2. Things that are not done well
3. Things you should be avoiding
4. Things that are taking up too much time
Doing this brings to the fore the problems that are causing you stress. Successful leaders are aware of their priorities and allow sufficient time for them. As a tip, try delegating the tasks that need to be done just as well by others. For tasks that you cannot commit to due to your packed schedule, learn to be assertive and say “no.”
Look for ways to do things more effectively. When making your list, you may find that you have spent time on things you should not over-commit time to doing. For example, you may find that you spent an hour on a meeting to discuss a decision, when a simple memo would have done the job. This allows you to re-strategise to a leaner, more time-efficient schedule by cutting away excessive time-expenditure.
Putting it all together
To make yourself resilient against stress, it is important that you strengthen your heart (through grit) and mind against the ravages of stress. This psychological immunisation against stress is vital for everyone who will be encountering difficulties along their leadership journey.
Tips for optimal performance under pressure
Tip no. 1: Build perseverance through practice
Practice makes perfect. Keep improving your skills, and you will have less trouble when the big day arrives.
Tip no. 2: Find meaning in your work
When things are going down, remind yourself why you are here and what a difference you can make.
Tip no. 3: Clarify your low-level goals
Note down the Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART) goals you need to achieve.
Tip no. 4: Focus on change
Think of obstacles as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. Rose-tinted lenses can sometimes spur you on.
Tip no. 5: Mono-task, not multitask
Learn to focus fully on tasks rather than drown yourself in multiple activities at a time.
Tip no. 6: Manage your time and resources
Think about how much time and resources you are over-committing or under-committing to specific tasks, then plan accordingly.