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When I think about the traits most necessary for leadership, a big one is the ability to remain calm in a storm and see the bigger picture. Easy, right? Natural for everyone. Nope.

Events happen fast, situations develop, information spreads at lightning speed and your body has a natural physiological response—heart beats faster, breath quickens, sweat breaks out on your brow, mind races and your muscles prepare for fight or flight. This is the stress response.

By now we’ve all heard about the long-term personal health risks of stress. But how you handle stress as a leader has a profound impact on the health of your organization, too.   

More than 50 percent of employees say leaders who are unable to effectively manage stress are harmful to the organization's performance, according to a survey by Life Meets Work.  

Leading by Example

Last month, I wrote that as leaders our words matter, how we act matters, and how we interact with people matters. I think the survey stats speak to that, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the employees’ opinions were a result of interaction with leaders versus passive observation.

The number one leader I’ve looked up to in life is my dad. When you are young, and you think something really bad has happened and you are freaking out, it is reassuring to hear, “Yes, this is bad, but everything is going to be fine. It’s not a big deal. Trust me.” That’s the job of a dad, but it wasn’t the only time I saw him do that.

When I was a kid, we would be at church on Sunday and a client or a community leader would come up to him to talk about an issue and he would just calmly stop everything and have an attentive, reassuring conversation with them.

My dad taught me a lot about business leadership and work ethics, but his ability to be calm in the eye of the storm, that I learned just by watching him operate.

I’m a very passionate individual, but I’m fortunate that I don’t really get rattled in a crisis. If I hear someone say, “Omg, everything is broken!” My response is to say, “Well, not everything is broken, but we might have a lot that we need to fix. Let’s figure out where to start.”

I always thought this was just something that comes from my dad, and maybe it is, but more likely it’s years of watching him and other great leaders practice stress management and critical thinking skills. Add to that the perspective I have gained through my own experiences, and calm has become almost a default. 

Which makes me wonder, how different would the lesson have been if every time there was a problem, my dad’s response was to yell, freak out, and run around like his hair was on fire? He would still have been a very competent problem solver, but it sure wouldn’t have looked that way to onlookers. His ability to manage his stress response and remain calm inspired confidence and trust.

Finding Your Calm

Because of my dad’s excellent example and other teachers, I have seen firsthand how to manage stress. I am by no means perfect at it, but I thought I would share some of the life hacks that I find personally helpful and I would encourage you to seek out your own calm.  

Find an everyday escape

Taking vacation is a great escape and hobbies that help de-stress are wonderful, but it’s not really practical to golf 18 holes every day or jet off to the Bahamas on a moment’s notice. So it’s important to have an everyday escape that fits into your normal routine to give yourself a break. Some people practice 10 minutes of morning meditation, some do bedtime yoga, and I drive in silence.  

When I was a teenager it blew my mind that my dad rarely had the radio on in his car. I thought he was weird and asked, “But what do you DO without music?” He said, “I think.”  Now I get it. I focus on the driving and my mind is free to explore other avenues in the silence. It’s meditation at 70 miles per hour and it suits my need to be in constant motion.

Focus on the problem, not the noise

It can be difficult to identify the root cause of a problem amidst the chaos of a situation. Emotions can run high when everyone has a different perspective or expectation. You need to acknowledge the concerns and then triage the most critical issues first.

I recently heard this concept described by a professional mountain climber as “focus on the ladder, not the fall.” When you come to a deep open crack in the middle of your climb, you must remain calm to cross it. Crossing requires you to place a ladder over the opening and carefully crawl to the other side. If you look down while you are crossing, you will freak out about your perilous position and be paralyzed thinking about falling to your death. If you focus on the ladder, however, and taking each rung individually, you will make it safely across.

The fall is like all the swirling noisy concerns that surround a problem—If you focus on that, it becomes overwhelming. The ladder represents tools for critical thinking. If you tackle the problem one step at a time, it feels more manageable and you will have better success.   

Look ahead and smile

“Could have, would have, should have” doesn’t move you forward. Don’t get me wrong, you can apply lessons learned in the past for future successes, but that comes from careful assessment, not just dwelling on past mistakes. If you spend all your time thinking about what could have or should have been, you will miss what is happening right now and what your future might be.

That also goes for past successes. I once had a boss tell me, “If you are always reading your own press releases, that’s a problem.” It’s important to celebrate success but you can’t celebrate and stop (settle in and get comfortable). You need to keep moving the needle forward and find ways to inspire others to keep moving forward. I’m a “what’s next” person. Keeping wins and losses in perspective helps keep me calm and focused on the future.

Stress is a universal struggle, but there isn’t just one approach to managing it that works for everyone. My life hacks work for me. I encourage everyone to seek their own inner calm. 

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A collection of articles from the McClone team with the helpful knowledge and insights to ensure your organization is well protected.