Stress; a portal to leadership wisdom?

Updated: Mar 2

The overwhelming feedback from the leaders I encounter is that their success to date has been as a result of solving difficult, stressful issues. In other words, stress has been an integral part of their success.

Some of you may be aware that I’ve taken the plunge and embarked on a new strategy for business development. It’s a very different approach and I can truthfully say it has plucked me from my comfort zone and thrown me into a place I do not recognise. I have no problem admitting I have experienced quite a bit of stress as we have worked through the various changes we’ve needed to make to implement the strategy.

I say I have no problem admitting it, but ten years ago I wouldn’t have owned up to feeling stressed, at least not to a group of my peers. You see, back then I saw stress, whether my own or my clients’, as a reflection of an inability to cope with life's challenges.

I’ve come around to a different way of thinking, partly as a result of discussions with our peer groups of business leaders, and partly thanks to my own leadership evolution. I now view stress, when understood and unwrapped, as a potential gift as opposed to something that should be managed or avoided.

Think about how you got to where you are

When we look at the wisdom we have gained up to now, we find it rarely came from reading books, studying or doing training courses. It came from dealing with difficult life issues and then reflecting on them later when we’ve had the opportunity to gain distance. When we are in a leadership position, we are often challenged with the bigger issues; stress tends to come with the territory.

Why does stress feel so debilitating?

When we are stressed, our minds are usually in a whirl, full of extra noise. If you are like me, you replay the scenario round and round in your head. As a result, you are rarely present to those in your company or family, or at least not in a way that allows you connect with what is going on in their lives. You are in effect absent from yourself and those around you. But even worse than ruminating on the issue is tuning into the other voice in your head that judges you for not being able to deal with the situation; your internal critic senses that your adrenaline is surging and grabs its megaphone.

Getting out of the maze

Even where you accept that the stress might yield the gift of wisdom at some time in the future when you are less emotionally caught up with the issue, you still need approaches, techniques or philosophies to help you get through it at the time.

Techniques for unwrapping the gift

As usual, I turned to the collective wisdom of my forum members. They’ve all dealt with very challenging situations and I was interested in hearing their approaches to dealing with the stress caused by the recurring and difficult challenges all leaders encounter.

Here are some of their insights.

Insight 1: reframe the challenge as a reflection of our growth

We all agreed the first key mind-set change is to view the challenge or issue we are dealing with as a reflection of our growth and not a reflection of our (in)competence.

A tip is to see the challenge as emerging because we have dealt with all the smaller problems previously thrown at us. It means that we are being given this challenge because we have demonstrated our ability to solve all the others. When we take a more difficult exam it is because we have passed the easier ones, not because we have failed them.

With this mindset in place it is much easier to work on the actual issue. Instead of being overly critical of ourselves, we are open to learning and further developing our leadership awareness. This takes away a lot of the negative emotional energy we may be directing towards ourselves or others.

Insight 2: share the problem

Many leaders are inclined to take too much responsibility for solving problems, and this adds to the stress. The old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved expresses a general truth (that’s why it’s an adage).

Yes, you could share the problem with someone you trust who is good listener but even better if you can share it with your management team or others who have a stake in the problem. Think of it this way: when we don't share, we prevent others from developing their leadership skills, which puts further pressure on us.


I was very lucky in the sense that I knew from the start my stress was eustress – that is beneficial stress, brought about by me taking the decision to push myself outside my known world. We open ourselves up to eustress anytime we give ourselves goals that will stretch us.

I was also lucky in that I had a team of people I trusted guiding me through the plan. But though I had people to share my fears with, as the leader of the change, I had to keep it together. That’s where my new thinking around stress was invaluable.

But there’s another advantage to experiencing stress and reframing it, which is that we improve our ability to empathise with our peers. The leaders in my forums who have transformed how they feel about stress are developing the empathy necessary to become great peer-to-peer coaches. They are much better at helping others find ways to silence the inner critic with the megaphone. That’s the gift of stress.

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