Are You Proud to be a Stressed-Out Leader?

Is stress taking a toll on your body, job or personal life? The author recounts how stress was destroying her workplace and health and how she overcame it.

Everybody knows that excited, innovative, turned-on, fired-up leaders are the secret to any successful organization…government or otherwise. Furthermore, I believe most people get up in the morning intending to be exactly that. 

And then something happens. The phone rings, the meeting starts, an email pops up, and by lunch…sometimes before…that same leader is frustrated, bogged down, stressed out, and counting the minutes until happy hour. 

What happened here? Ringing phones announcing last minute executive briefs, blinging emails demanding program reviews, and back-to-back meetings on budget realignments and reprioritization are part of the business of government. Those parts are unlikely to change. So why the meltdown?

The Habit of Stress

It’s called the habit of stress. Many of us have it.

WHAT?!?! Kinda hard to hear, isn’t it? But it’s true.

In modern society, stress level has become the thing we brag about in the coffee line. “I’m so busy I can’t think.” “I’m so covered up I skipped lunch today.” We seem to have this secret recording in our head that says, “My personal and professional value is directly proportional to the level of stress I feel or sacrifices I make”.

Wearing the Stress Badge

Then it gets worse. Not only do we wear the Stress Badge ourselves, we begin to insist that others wear it as well! 

When I was a young CIA officer, I had a supervisor tell me that he didn’t even need to see his officers to know who the good ones were. He only needed to look at the amount of overtime they claimed.

With that in mind, I started looking around the office and noticed people slogging through their day, creating busy work for themselves simply to put hours on the time sheet. Others would efficiently and effectively knock out their project, but find themselves creating more busy work for fear of not looking productive. 

(Can you see the no-win situation here?)

As the weeks went by, morale in the office slumped lower and lower. We made mistakes. When we noticed our mistakes, we blamed each other and resorted to backstabbing and sniping. Two employees developed marital problems, another started having problems with his teenage son, and one employee was medically evacuated back to the United States for stress-related heart problems.

I wasn’t immune either. For me, the stress showed up as chronic migraines and the inability to get results even though I was technically “doing everything right”. Suffice it to say, that tour was neither fun nor productive…for me or anyone else in that office. 

Interestingly, we all thought that we were doing good work and providing valuable service. Why? Because we were busy, stressed, and miserable. The stress and misery meant that we were working hard, and hard work is good work, right? 

That may have been true in the past –though I seriously doubt it – but it doesn’t work in the modern world.

Here’s the worst part: the habit of stress is so deeply ingrained that it has become your automatic set point. It’s hard-wired into your system almost like the thermostat on the office AC. It’s making you uncomfortable, but getting access to the mechanism to adjust the setting is a mystery. Which is why it is so DARN ANNOYING when someone tells you to just “let it go”, “don’t worry so much”, or – my favorite – “you just need to lower your expectations”.


A Better Way to Manage Stress

There’s a better way! 

And it starts with the very first step: noticing how much stress you carry around on a daily basis. If you were to measure it on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being completely totally calm and 10 being full explosion, what is your every day, get up in the morning, walking around stress level? Even BEFORE the phone rings.

In the old days, I was at best a 6 by the time I got out of the shower. Throw the “crisis of the day” on top and I was about a 7. With 60-70% of my energy already consumed by the day-to-day, I only had 30% of my best gifts to bring to the table.

Thirty percent doesn’t leave much room for innovation, discernment, compassion, or strategic problem solving – you know, leadership. It wasn’t until my coach (yes, every modern leader has a coach in her back pocket) helped me crack the code on my own hidden programming that I realized I was actually USING stress to keep myself in action.

Huh? That doesn’t even make sense, right? Yeah, this higher-level leadership work is highly counter-intuitive.

We all know that the physiological stress response in the body actually short circuits the exact capacities required to make things happen in the world. Yet, in my system, I was attempting to use stress as a fuel source. No wonder I was running on empty. And, no wonder a part of me REFUSED to let that stress go. The stress was way more than a badge of honor. It was a twisted, knotted, messed-up lifeline.

Working with my coach I learned how to fuel myself from a different place…to lead from a different place.

Now as CEO of my own thriving coaching practice, all of the old stressORS are still there, albeit in a different form: instead of bosses, I have clients; instead of direct reports, I have team and vendors; instead of a regular paycheck, I generate my own income. And, I still have eldercare, bills, and adult human maintenance tasks–just like before. The difference is now those things don’t suck up my energy and bandwidth. 

I adjusted my internal stress thermostat and now fuel my action from a different place, so I can get on about making the difference I’m here to make. I have all of me to bring to my work. (Ok, if I’m being really honest, it’s about 80%. I’m still a work in progress. But 80% is way better than the 30% I was showing up with before.) I better discern where to direct my time and energy for maximum impact. Exactly the right people show up to support me because I’m clear on what I need and communicate that effectively. I love the time I spend working, and I love the time I spend not working. 

What would it be for you? If you could turn down just 10% of your stress and have just 10% more energy and resilience, what would your 10% bigger impact look like? Whether it’s 10% more time with your family, 10% more influence in the office, or 10% more money in your paycheck, it’s 10% more REAL YOU. And that’s 100% awesome!

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.