Success over stress is all about your context, your game plan and your attitude explains Doug Dickerson

When the pressure is on, great leaders are at their best. Whatever is inside them comes to the surface.

John Maxwell

A story is told of actress Carol Burnett who got out of a cab one day and caught her coat in the door. The driver was unaware of her plight and slowly began to edge out into traffic. To keep from being pulled off her feet, the comedienne had to run alongside down the block.

A passerby noted her predicament and quickly alerted the driver. He stopped, jumped out and released Miss Burnett’s coat. “Are you all right?” he asked anxiously. “Yes,” she gasped, “but how much more do I owe you?”

That light-hearted story shows a humorous way of responding to what could have been a not-so-funny outcome. In our world, as leaders, we can find ourselves in stressful situations. It’s how it’s handled that matters.

It’s not a secret that stress in the workplace is on the rise. In a recent study by Harris (, 80% of US workers said they can identify at least one thing that stresses them at work. The stress factors include low salaries, intense workloads and taxing commutes to name a few.

Great leaders are those who, when under pressure, step up and deliver in spite of the stress. Of course, this is easier said than done. So what should a leader do when he or she is in the pressure cooker? Here are three approaches:

Put your stress into context

At times we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to stress. For instance, we procrastinate on an important deadline and are now scrambling to complete at the last minute. We allow our imaginations to run wild with scenarios we create that adds fuel to the fire. Our workload is doubled without warning and no extra help. We speculate in “what ifs” and get worked up over hypotheticals. It all adds up to one thing: stress! Can you relate?

The best thing you can do as a leader is to put your stress in context. You may be overwhelmed or feel that your current “crisis” is about to sink you. Allow me to make a suggestion – take a step back and take a deep breath. Look at the big picture. It may not be as big a deal as you think. If it is…keep reading.

Get a game plan

Establishing context about your stress is essential. A game plan is a way out. Here is a simple formula to help you get your game plan ready: W (What am I stressed about?) + W (Why am I stressed?) + W (What can I do about it?) = S (Success). Get some paper and begin to work on your plan. Here’s how.

First, identify your stress. Is it a personnel issue? Is there a breakdown in organizational structure or communication? Is it a personal issue? How is this stress impacting your ability to lead? Regardless of where it takes you, figure it out.

Second, now that you know what it is, you need to figure out why it is stressing you. What are the immediate consequences of your stress? Is this stress an imminent threat to your organization or personal life? Etc…

Finally, write out what you can do about it. What are the top two or three action steps you can implement immediately that can help? Is there someone who can help you? Do they need to? Keep in mind, there may not be anything you or anyone else can do about it. In such a case, you have to change your attitude toward it. Now that you have a plan – work it!

Apply your lessons

Smart leaders are out-front leaders. You will never avoid stress as a leader so learning how to deal with it will make a world of difference. Smart leaders know how to manage their stress and the negative impacts it can make across the spectrum of their organization.

Every stressful situation is a test and whether you pass or fail depends on your approach. Not all stress is self-inflicted, and not all reactions merit the same response. Smart leaders apply the lessons and learn from them.

Success over stress is all about your context, your game plan and your attitude. Choose wisely!

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Doug Dickerson is a respected leadership author, speaker, and trainer. He is a John Maxwell Team member and a Certified DISC Trainer. He resides outside Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

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