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The interrelation between Stress and Leadership


Did you know? 1. Leadership development is a $366 billion industry globally (Forbes, 2019) 2. A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion dollars per year (I’m wondering if this is only America, what the global number would be?) 3. 88% leaders (across middle and senior levels) report that work is a primary source of stress in their lives (CCL research) Why am I stating these numbers? Many leaders I speak to about workplace wellness interventions are often concerned about the ROI. These concerns are relevant, particularly in times of relative economic slow-down. Ironically, whilst questions such as ROI come up, many organizations continue to invest in leadership development, recognizing it could potentially be valuable. Investing on leadership development, without taking care of wellbeing or creating an environment that is resilient to stress may give some results in the short term but isn’t sustainable in the long term. In other words, investing in leadership development without reducing the ‘costs’ of stress is not good for an organization or its leaders! Stress results in leadership derailment In the 1980s, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) began studying derailment. This led to defining ten organizational or individual reasons for derailment. However, the most frequent (and underlying reason) for derailment was identified as stress. Under stress, it was observed that leaders tend to overuse their strengths, become too aggressive/intimidating, or simply withdraw from interactions! The most common and relatable example of this – A leader’s standout strength could be his/her prudence and conscientiousness. In stress situations this individual begins to do everything alone – which could lead to him/her coming across as someone who cannot delegate or a leader who micromanages. When this leader operates without stress, he/she may actually be one who leverages the strength of prudence to ensure there is structure, clarity, and all team roles/responsibilities are well defined! A leadership development program can help us enhance awareness and make behavioural changes, however, when we experience ‘stress’, it becomes challenging to avoid derailment. Such derailment behaviours dilute the positive changes an individual makes when going through coaching/development. However, a leadership development intervention, if combined with wellness coaching, mindfulness, support with cultivating resilience, and changes within the organizational ecosystem, would eventually be more sustainable with a visible impact on ROI. Stress impacts our physiology (and as a result – behaviour) The idea that leaders experience stress is ubiquitous. Picture this - a client is constantly reaching out with demanding deadlines you begin to experience stress. When such situations occur frequently (which is likely in today’s VUCA environment), being ‘stressed’ is almost natural for many of us. This prolonged stress can impact our physiology in multiple ways – right from a disturbed hypothalamus (leading to hormonal imbalance), lower serotonin levels (wellbeing hormone), and a shrinking pre-frontal cortex (leading to less focus, slower and skewed decision making). For those attempting to make behavioural changes, this can be frustrating – we know we need to change, yet our physiology and emotions don’t align. Ultimately, this leads to teams and organizations working on solving for lack of collaboration, lower engagement levels and so on! A wellness coach and consultant can help leaders become aware of their stressors, and manage stress 1. Correct the balance of demands vs. resources - At the heart is the balance of demands vs. resources that individual experience on a daily basis. When demands are greater than resources, we experience stress. A wellness coach helps leaders with tools/techniques to enhance their individual resources and develop coping strategies to be able to remain energetic and mindful despite the demands 2. Identify derailment risks and manage them – Leveraging various psychometrics, one on one conversations, and wellness assessment tools, a wellness coach helps individuals become aware of their derailment behaviours, and manage them 3. Co-create an environment that is resilient to stress – Along with helping leaders enhance personal resources, a holistic wellbeing approach is also about working with organizations to identify cultural/organizational stressors, and work on making positive changes I have developed the Workplace Wellbeing Index (WWI), which looks at stressors linked to the organizational environment, the lifestyle of leaders, and specific mindfulness behaviours. I combine this with psychometrics to identify stressors and help both leaders and organizations to make shifts!

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