Stress comes with leadership. Managing it can make the difference between success and failure, organizationally and personally.
Part of managing it is to know and recognize the difference between positive and negative stress.
The short story is this: positive stress makes you feel good and negative stress makes you feel bad – even bad enough for you to become quite sick.
Positive and negative stress
I remember moments when I have been under a lot of stress as an executive but was able to win through on one or other challenging project, and the sense of exhilaration I felt then. It helped that I was working with good teams and excellent leaders, on projects where I was able to bring real value from my experience and insights. Positive stress.
I also remember times when I experienced serious negative stress, for example when with a change of higher level leadership or policy, or both, I found myself engaged in a daily struggle to be committed and enthusiastic in leading when I was feeling neither of those emotions. Not good for my team, not good for me.
In one instance that negative stress became quite worrying when I suddenly noticed my hand was shaking with a tremor I had never experienced before. Fortunately I was not to experience it for very long, because I took action, exercising an option to take some leave that was owing to me. And when not long after the vacation the negative stress returned, I was able to arrange to step aside from that position, take on a different role, lose that worrying hand tremor, smile again and be enthusiastically productive again.
Interviewing Jack Crumlin
The recollection of that hand tremor experience, and some attendant questions about the inevitable compromises that come with executive life, and thoughts about the challenge of learning to know when the negative stress is going into the red zone and taking whatever action is appropriate about that, were prompted recently when I interviewed a man with a diverse and highly impressive experience in executive roles and someone highly attuned to handling such questions, Jack Crumlin.
Jack is Founder Director of Norton Crumlin & Associates, which supports executives, teams and organizations in the commercial and government spheres, and whose website carries their guiding, foundational principle, “Helping Executives be successful and keeping them safe and sane in the process”. You can listen to the whole interview (25 minutes), where Jack talks about this and reflects on his own experience as an executive, at this link.
As a coach, I like to say I help executives be successful and still have their families and friends wanting to talk to them, but I have to admit I like the Jack Crumlin’s company’s slogan better. I find it highly appropriate and inspiring. Especially with the exponential pace of change in our digital world.
When high expectations meet human frailty
CEOs and other senior executives carry on their shoulders the high expectations of others, that they will always make the right decisions, that they will always be tuned into customer needs, that they will always be able to bring their team with them to achieve the goals and objectives of their company or other organization, and that they will remain thoughtful, emotionally balanced, inspiring people in the process. Often the livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of people and their families are in the hands of those executives. Sometimes, especially in some industries and some roles, there are literally matters of life and death to be considered, the most obvious of those being in industries such as mining, and in the military or in the political sphere.
Is it any wonder that many executives experience negative stress?
Watching for the signs
As an executive leadership coach, I have an obligation to be alert to signs of acute negative stress in my clients, and help them deal with it before it gets out of hand. I also need the training, experience and sensitivity to see when the manifestations of that stress, for instance signs of depression, may indicate a responsibility to encourage my client to seek specialist help that I am not qualified to provide.
And executives for their part have to be honest with themselves when they – or maybe family, friends or colleagues – are noticing signs that the negative stress is becoming less manageable. And preferably not let it get to the hand tremor stage, or worse, before taking remedial action.
Balance is all
Being successful, without being at the same time safe and sane, is a hollow victory.
You may have suggestions as to how executives can achieve success and stay safe and sane in the process. If so, I hope you will share those in the comments.