How Good Leaders Handle Stress


When I think back over all the dinner parties, showers, church gatherings and various events I’ve hosted over the years, one stands out as a complete and total disaster: Turkey Day in May.

Several years ago, after eight months of parenthood, my husband and I decided it was time to start entertaining again. (I know.) We invited some close friends and family—about 20 people—to our home for a church-related event and planned a huge Thanksgiving-style dinner to feed everyone. In May.

The funny thing about our climate here in Portland is that every year in May we have one AMAZING week of glorious warm weather and everyone exclaims, “Yay!!! Sun!!! It’s going to be a great summer this year!” forgetting that every year June brings a return to gray skies, drizzle, and mind-numbing weather-induced depression.

We hosted Turkey Day during “wonder weather week,” which normally would have been lovely. But of course, that’s exactly when our air conditioner broke. So on a beautiful 90+ degree day, I was roasting an enormous turkey in a house full of people with no A/C. Everyone was sweating and uncomfortable. The little ones were cranky. There was no relief outside. I was out of practice as a hostess and anxious that everything go well. Meanwhile, did I mention I had an eight-month-old baby? I was stressed about the turkey, stressed about the heat, stressed about my baby…

In short, I was one giant frazzled ball of anxious nerves and irritability.

It is at this point in the blog than I normally say, “And so, I breathed. And life was awesome. And everyone lived happily ever after.”

But [spoiler alert!] my life is not a fairy tale and I don’t always do things perfectly. I did not breathe. No, I worried, I fumed, I barked at people. I not only made everyone more uncomfortable than they already were, I ruined the day and even offended some friends. It was not awesome. No one was happy. Least of all, me.

And for what? A dinner party with friends? In the grand scheme of life, what is one dinner party? So what if it was too warm? Or the turkey didn’t turn out? Or my baby was fussy? Was it worth getting so stressed about that I actually damaged relationships?

We think it’s all the external bits and pieces—the temperature and the food and the noise, etc.—that come together to make an impression on our audience, that make them like and respect us and feel positive in our homes or our offices or at boardrooms. We think it’s our management of the details that makes us look like great leaders. Nope. It’s how we present ourselves, especially when under stress, that makes the biggest impression.

I saw this awhile back when I attended a networking meeting for a professional women’s organization. The lady in charge desperately wanted everything to go smoothly. She worried about the technology. She worried about the size of the room. She worried about the food. Worried, worried, worried. And, of course, it came across—in her body language and her tone of voice. She was short and curt and not at all welcoming. She ended up rubbing several people the wrong way, including the guest speaker!

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When you stress and worry so much that you offend others, you communicate, “Getting this right so I can look good is more important to me than you are.” That doesn’t make people feel good! And, ironically, it doesn’t make you look good, either.

True leaders handle crises without belittling or intimidating others. Instead, they communicate competence and confidence, while preserving a sense of community, and face the challenge. How can you do this?

1. Breathe. Deep breathing clears your mind, grounds you in your body, and communicates that you are rational. Breathe not only for yourself, but for the group, too. When the leader breathes, so can everyone else, because they can visibly see that you are in control of your body and brain. They feel safe.

2. Increase your confidence. I don’t mean, “Give yourself a pep talk.” To increase your confidence, make your physical body take up more space: stand up straight and with a wider stance, open up your chest cavity (breathing helps with this), gesture farther away from your body. Making yourself “bigger” increases your production of testosterone, which not only makes you look more confident, but you will feel more confident, too. Leaders don’t shrink from trouble. That makes the group feel safer, too.

3. Expand your sense of space to include the group. When in crisis, we often turn inward, both physically and mentally. Good leaders are always aware of the group. Claiming a space that is big enough for your group makes them feel included, even if you aren’t engaging directly with them. They feel not only safe, but valuable.

4. Keep the big picture in mind. It’s not about you. Ironically, it’s once we let go of our personal desires and ambitions that we have the most power to achieve them. You will be more creative and willing to take risks when your ego and identity aren’t on the line. And when you convey that you are working for something greater than your own goals, others are more likely to join in. It makes them feel good!

Luckily, I learned some hard lessons at that Turkey Day in May fiasco. If I want people to have a positive experience in my presence, I need to give them one. I need to manage my stress, convey my competence nonverbally, and remember that all my hard work will be for nothing if I alienate the group. Don’t repeat my mistakes when you’re in a stressful situation. Learn from them and communicate calm, competent, inspirational leadership.

Change your communication, change your life.


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