Leaders and stress: managing the monster
Stress is part and parcel of active life. You can’t but welcome stress if you’re alive and active. In fact, experts say stress is useful as a work-life morale booster. But there is another kind of stress that results in distress, fatigue, emotional disorders, mental breakdowns, and other health problems. That is the monster all leaders should learn to manage.
Some years ago, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings collapsed on state duty. By his fall, the handsome former airforce pilot, who was president at that time, made a breath-taking scene. He fell for no apparent reason. He just went blank and off. Later, after the charismatic leader had come round, he gave the bewildered public the reason why he suddenly pined out: He had been working for years without leave! Praise God, Rawlings strayed into death’s orbit and walked away alive. But you can’t be sure you would if you tried! The airforce officer was felled by stress; and leaders who failed to manage stress would fall ill and go down in like manner. Stress is part and parcel of active life. You can’t but welcome stress if you’re alive and active. In fact, experts say stress is useful as a work-life morale booster. In his book, Leadership, Anthony D’souza of the Haggai Institute, says: “Not all stress is bad. Stress wakes us up and gets us going”. This is the type of stress that helps pump you up with adrenaline, keeping all your body lights on when you have some urgent tasks to perform or you’re in frenetic pursuit of a vision with a close deadline. Stress at such a time is a booster helpmate, giving you the needed high. It is positive stress called “eustress” and all effective leaders need it! It is a natural concomitant of active leadership; and some of us leaders are on high gear when pressure is put on us at full throttle. But there’s another kind of stress that results in distress, fatigue, emotional disorders, mental breakdowns, physical wear and tear, low productivity and sundry health problems. That’s the stress that rattled Rawlings. It’s the monster all leaders should learn to manage. The monster is a creation of exposure to continuous or prolonged stressful situations. Short-term or seasonal stress is a boon to effective leadership. But where stress is allowed to assume a permanent feature of leadership practice, it puts the leader’s health and productivity in jeopardy. Experts say people show symptoms of stress depending on their psychological characteristics and the variety of stressful situations they suffer. The lists of symptoms are long but inexhaustive. In an article he wrote for Healthwise (2005), Stuart J. Bryson listed seven physiological stress-related problems: Rapid heart-beat, headache, stiff neck, tight shoulders, backache, rapid breathing, sweating and clammy palms, nausea or diarrhoea. Anthony D’souza (1989) added “muscle tension or spasms, hypertension, coronary heart-disease, ulcers, insomnia, skin rashes, dizziness or blurred vision, gum disease, excessive tiredness, blood and hormonal changes”. Enough sicknesses to kill the strongest of all leaders! Stress also produces such psychological problems as tenseness, sadness, boredom, temper flares, worry, depression, inferiority complex, and fuzziness. Nor does stress spare your behaviour. While suffering from its effects, you would experience behavioural shifts from conviction to indecision, clear thinking to confusion, attentiveness to poor concentration, calmness to haste, rationality to impulsive behaviour, accommodation to intolerance, and moderation to intemperance. Your problem-coping power may dip and frustration set in. Also, your relationship with your family and society might be affected by the carry-overs of stress-induced behavioural problems. For all the problems it could unleash on the human life, stress is a negative experience all leaders should wish didn’t exist. However, the world is a stress arena. It pulsates with stress and we can only learn to cope with it, not wish it away. The first step in coping with stress is knowing what it really is. The psychology of stress holds that stress isn’t influence of a bad occurrence. It’s your mind’s response to your body’s protest against stressful situations (stressors). If your mind interprets the situations negatively, stress results, with its symptoms. D’souza says “stress is an anxiety reaction to the way people look at what happens to them”. I’m afraid this is a dangerous conceptualisation of stress. If we operationalise stress as a function of the mind, we risk overlooking its external factors. We might reason: a leader may carry on as he will so long as he has programmed his mind to call billows bliss and view problems as pleasures, he will suffer no hurt. I don’t think you can always fool your mind so as to stretch your body beyond its elastic limits. No matter how good you are at mind conditioning, if you stretch the body beyond its capacity it would snap. The mind may toughen the body to the extent that the body is capable of accepting the hardening. The human mind seems to know this; and when it tells the body it’s biting more than it can chew, stress is looming. One way you might cope with stress is to toughen your mind and condition it to be realistically positive about the crosses of leadership. But while you’re trying to do this, cut your duties according to your strength. That implies having a correct assessment of your stress-coping ability; for too much work invites stress. Now, what is too
much for Rawlings may be too little for me! Gabrielle Reece (2007) says “one person’s stress is another’s holidays”. Quoting Hans Selye, the world’s leading stress expert, D’souza (1989) says that “if people are race horses, they will find great stress in trying to live the life of turtles”. On the flip side, “if people are turtles trying to keep up with the race horses also leads to burn-out”. Thus, as regards stress, what is safe for the goose may be dangerous for the gander. *Victims of stress
Granted the variation in stress-coping capacity, all leaders are susceptible to stress-related problems, but some more than others. Coping capacity depends on some personality factors, scholars say. Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, both cardiologists, have identified two types of personality, which they called Type-A and Type-B. Type-A people are extremely extrovertible, active, highly emotional, restive, polyphasic, workaholic, hasty, time-conscious, ambitious and success-driven. I call them the go-go, dream-dream, do-do, get-get leaders. Said D’souza: “Type-A leaders rush to meet deadlines, become irritable and aggressive, their blood pressure rises, their cholesterol level increases, and in other biochemical ways they do damage to themselves”. Type-A leaders are very vulnerable to stress because of their characteristics and conduct. Their lifestyle exposes them to stress and its awful effects. At the end of the behavioural personality continuum is the Type-B leaders who are on the softer side of leadership practice. They tread the leadership pathway with gentle, easy steps, calculating, calm, cool and collected. They are patient, oblivious of time and deadlines, realistic goal setters, introvertible, more tolerant and accommodating. Unlike Type-A people, they are more relaxed and go for leisure. Both types of leaders, however, are achievers because a leader’s effectiveness doesn’t depend on whether he is of Type-A or Type-B. But the stress coping capacity of each type of personality differs. Type-A are more likely to go down with stress-related illness than Type-B. All effective leaders will experience stress in a measure. But we may all learn to manage the effects of stress such that we stay on top of it and our health and behaviour remain unaffected. I will state the coping mechanisms as tips. * Control or avoid work-related stressors
To do this, avoid working without a schedule or plan; and when at work give no room for interruptions to prevent nerve jarring. Have intervention teams who help you investigate conflict, broker peace and write reports for your consideration and approval. Make your island bigger if you’re doing too little; trim your schedule if it’s getting too busy. Pursue change with steady calculated speed. Too many changes in one swoop will unleash stress and burn-out. When decision-making becomes too tough and cumbersome, float a think-tank to help simplify the process and absorb some of the heat. You only need to look at their reports and decide what should be done. Don’t bottle up emotions and flaming feelings. Express them through interactive communication. Regard failure as a detour on the road to success and resist the urge to quit. * Cut and share responsibilities
Effective leaders practise dispersed leadership that duplicates and deploys leadership talents such that authority flows upwards, downwards and laterally through the hierarchy. Dispersed leadership results in load-shedding and load-sharing, and thus keeps stress at the barest manageable minimum. Distribute “stress” across the hierarchy. Don’t share only the bucks; share the burden, too. * Cultivate the appropriate lifestyle
Effective leaders don’t live anyhow. There is a lifestyle appropriate for effective leadership, which can help leaders stay on top of stress. Such a lifestyle is marked by exercise, good diet, good rest or relaxation, meditation, and communication through writing or speaking. These activities help to cope with stress when applied as relief techniques for tension. A walk might help you shed some heat off your system and get the blood flowing again when you feel dazed, dizzy and glued. Good green food and purposeful eating helps you build a strong healthy body with good immune function. Good sleep refreshes your mind such that you have a better shot at coping with further stressful situations. Research has shown that people can reduce their stress level by expressing themselves in writing. When you have too many tasks competing for attention, put them down with the method statements for accomplishing them. And work on one task at a time. * Change your thinking Besides your genetic traits, your stress level is directly proportional to your perception of the stressful situations you face. If you’re always positive about your job, you have a better shot at reducing your stress level and stay unruffled. Have a low stress month, Amen!