James de Gaspé Bonar
Ph.D., CEC, PCC
February 01, 2015
An executive once shared with me the debilitating stress, the pain, he was experiencing in his work environment. He wondered how he could continue to lead his organization when he was feeling as badly as he did… And his deep-seated, unspoken, fear was that he couldn’t.
Leadership has been described as a role involving chronic stress punctuated by periods of tension. There are times in leaders’ careers when chaos and confusion seem to continue unabashed; when one major challenge follows another, sometimes with devastating consequences. For some, the pain will become so severe, so acute, that is incapacitating and they will do almost anything to make it go away. These times force leaders to re-evaluate what they think, how they feel, what is really important in their careers, in their lives, and what no longer serves them. The intensity of their pain forces them to re-evaluate their priorities.
The most effective leaders learn to successfully manage and overcome these challenges. Effective leadership can only be sustained by balancing stress and renewal. The successful journey of renewal enables leaders to effectively manage their strengths, and leverage their talents and their energies. Based on our experiences with executives and the best thinking on the subject, we have found some consistent, albeit unexpected, themes.
Intellectual: Effective leaders address the stress in their lives and create ways of renewing themselves. Self-awareness is the difficult, yet necessary, first step. High performing executives see themselves as others see them. They are keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses, realizing that some of their greatest strengths are now liabilities. They analyse their limitations and manage them. They hold themselves personally accountable for their actions. In-depth self-awareness is key to enabling executives to be consistent and to be perceived as authentic. Effective leaders learn to trust their inner voice, their intuition.
Physical: Many executives respond to stress at work by working harder and longer. Often, they exercise little or not at all. No time, they say. Then, they wolf down the wrong foods at irregular hours. They sometimes consume too much alcohol to ease stress. They frequently get insufficient sleep. Is it any wonder that things begin to slip at work? Small problems become unusually troublesome, Relationships are strained. Self-confidence wanes. Health suffers. A feeling of loss of control begins to take root. To remain effective, executives must sustain their bodies.
Emotional: Self-absorption drains energy and impedes performance. The more preoccupied we become with our concerns and fears, the less energy we have for positive action. Successful executives have a positive attitude. They are curious about themselves, others and the world around them. They value their customers and endeavor to satisfy their employees’ needs, worries and motivations. Their openness to others leads to creativity and resilience, and helps alleviate the isolation they feel. It often has the effect of empowering both leaders and employees. It is central to personal renewal.
Purposeful: Purpose is the source of energy, focus and power. Our spirit is renewed when we reconnect to our sense of purpose and to our deepest professional and personal values. This translates itself at the most basic level by telling the truth to ourselves about ourselves: Am I the leader I aspire to be? Am I acting according to my values? Do I hear the subtle messages from the people I lead? Being purposeful is being truthful to others and living up to our commitments. Purpose inspires the spirit to believe our vision of the future is attainable. It enables us to articulate this vision clearly and passionately. It inspires others to reach for their dreams too. The power of purpose is transformative.
To be successful, leaders must honestly take stock of their current situation holistically. Often born from pain, self-awareness is the necessary first step on the path of renewal; while meaningful, purposeful, action is the second and determining one.