Staying Cool When the Heat is On: 16 Practical Ways to Lead and Manage through Stress


Lurching from one crisis to the next”. That’s how it is sometimes for leaders in stormy waters. “If only there were a dull moment”, one coaching client recently said. “I yearn for a dull moment”.

Pressure and the resulting stress response is both part of the journey but potentially a big problem for leaders and managers. It can often be tucked away, out of sight, masked by urbane or energetic behaviours. The MD or CEO is probably the one who doesn’t take the odd “duvet day”.

I believe we are all on our own personal journey with pressure and stress.  Unless tackled, it can have a seriously debilitating effect.  And I know it can be tackled because I have done it.  I am told I appear confident and in control.  And that is generally how I feel.  Years ago, when I first moved to London, I was physically over-stressed for reasons I could not fathom.  I had the whole shooting match of symptoms.   Using the techniques I provide here helped me to recover my balance and feel up for anything.



I see four main effects of leader stress on the organisation:

  1. Mood setting. Leaders and managers have a disproportionate effect on the mood of the organisation. They set the tone. They are like emotional amplifiers. A leader in a bad mood will have a more pronounced effect than almost any other colleague. “Happy boss = happy workplace = higher engagement = more success” is a useful equation.
  2. Depletion of ambition. The mind’s natural defence to over-stress is to reign back from change. Thus, the leader or manager finds good reasons not to do new things, is slow to embrace or set new directions.
  3. Increase in conflict. The “flight or fight” response can lead to more aggression. There isn’t anywhere to run to, so stress is output (and in turn feed upon) arguments with colleagues, brooding enmity or plain dislike. Conflict within the organization becomes an energy sink hole.
  4. Slowing down. Stress hormones make decision-making more difficult. Lots of work with firefighters, soldiers, pilots and city traders demonstrate how some people with lots of cortisol will either make risky, knee-jerk decisions or be unable to decide at all. In less critical organisations, it’s often the latter. Uncertainty and a raised sense of fear and self-trust erode at the confidence needed to make the big decisions. Everything slows down. There may be analysis-paralysis.


So what can you do about this? The remedies fall into three categories: MENTAL, PHYSICAL and PRACTICAL.


Let’s start with the physical because, ultimately, that is the platform for improving the mental aspect.

  • Breathe. Part of the physical routine of stress is to under or over ventilate. Probably stemming from the flight or fight response. Take opportunities to get away from your desk. Go out at lunchtime. Take a good walk to get some lungs of fresh air. Take some time to breathe deeply.  Many practice meditation which is mindful breathing allied with clearing of the mind. There is a lot of research showing how it lowers stress levels. Maybe give that a go.
  • Exercise. I know lots of MDs and CEOs who are also very keen exercisers – gym bunnies, lycra clad cyclists, mostly.  Almost to a person, I would describe this group as less stressy. Boosting serotonin will reduce cortisol. Remember that feeling of powerful relaxation after a decent session doing something physical? That’s a feeling of resilience, a feeling in which you perceive yourself to be more capable of taking on challenges. I often feel that I get rid of unproductive jangling and replace it with smooth, energized relaxation after a good swim, for instance.
  • Sleep. Cortisol keeps you awake. Being tired increases cortisol. It’s a vicious cycle. Getting enough sleep will de-escalate this cycle. So practice the good sleep routines. No electronics for two hours before bed, dark room, no alcohol (reduces ability to maintain sleep). As I am continually reminded, an hour before midnight is worth two hours after.
  • Measure your non-working hours. In a macho way, we all like to be seen as hard-working. It’s not uncommon to hear people bragging about the 18 hour days or the lack of a day off for a month. Reverse it. Measure how good you are at taking time off. Sir Richard Branson is masterful at this. Can you be even a fraction as successful at this as Sir Richard?



Now let’s turn to the MENTAL

  • Diagnose. Consider “How am I creating, enabling or allowing this stress to occur?” Make a list of the things you are doing and are not doing to make the stress worse.
  • Get an ear to talk to. A confidante, a mentor or coach can help you to voice the uncertainties and dilemmas safely. Everyone, everyone feels better once they have unloaded. Too often, the heroic leader or manager thinks they have to be able to cope with everything alone. That’s just daft. It’s not what high-performing leaders do. Rehearsing your dilemmas and solutions before you decide is just wise.
  • Write a list. This is about decluttering the mind and putting all your issues and concerns onto paper so you don’t have to carry them around with you. When they are on paper, you don’t have to remember to remember them. Your buffer will be less full and your own mental hard disk can work more efficiently. I use this. When I find myself too focused on work issues, I often physically write a list for “Tomorrow, This Week and Beyond” and leave it on my desk before I close the door on it.
  • Electronic Holidays. Put it away! Write rules and email your coach weekly on how well you are observing them. No internet after 9pm. No internet on Sundays. You will know what is right for you. Take periods away from the assaults of the inbox. You will find you may be much more productive.
  • Diagnose the Issues. I take the view that stress is a useful signal that something is unresolved. Here are the questions you might address to discover what needs to be given attention.
  • Make a list of issues that are taking too much headspace. The trick here is to understand why. Why are you over-focusing on this? Has a value been violated? Has a principle been transgressed? Do you have some negative emotion around a person? It’s at this level that we can really get to the root cause of what’s bothering us.
  • Things I know I need to do but am not doing. Procrastination is part of the symptom set of stress. So you are either putting things off because you are lacking energy or because there is some fear knocking around in them. Either way, my procrastination equation is:

stress levels = (importance x delay) x propensity for stress

  • Address the issue. Maybe you’ve had too high expectations of yourself.   Maybe you’ve been valiantly trying to do too much.Prioritisation is the key to getting back in control. And feeling in control is the cornerstone of de-stressing.  Here are some questions to address:


What need am I not getting met?  The need for more certainty, the need for support, the need for harmony, the need for collegiate responsibility, the need for significance?

What action is most going to move us/me/things forward? You can do anything but you can’t do everything. Focus on the high gain activities.

What uncomfortable truths do I need to face? About the situation, about me, about others? I saw a number of friends and clients grapple with this during the recession. Recognising that a market was receding or that your costs are too high can be stressful. The problem is, the longer the situation is left, the more stressful it can become.

What conversations do I need to have? We sometimes avoid uncomfortable conversations. Instead, we store them as inner-dialogue. We either rehearse the conversations internally (repeating the moment of high stress in our head) or we distance ourselves from the person we should be speaking to.

What incompletions do I have? Incompletions weigh heavy on most of us. We are keeping them alive in our memory which requires mental energy. We carry guilt about them which is a negative emotion turned inward. Simply listing them out is cathartic. In my workshops, I use a physical rucksack to describe what happens. Each time we make a commitment to do something, we put a rock in the rucksack. We carry it around with us. When we do what we said we would do, we take a rock out. As a consequence, we feel lighter and more free. It’s immensely liberating.


  • F**k it! One of the reasons we get stressed is because we inflate the importance of the matter at hand. There is, I am reliably informed, a workshop in Italy called “F**k It” which is aimed at helping people let go and regain a sense of proportion.  There are books that go with it.  Would love to see the Retreat on the Corporate Training Applicaction Form!  That would raise a bit of a stir in L&D!
  • Reframe. Reframing is a technique to think about a situation in a different way.

Temporal. Zoom out and see this current issue as an event over a long time line stretching into the past and into the future. Can you see current difficulties as part of the ebb-and-flow of the economic cycle?

Meaning. You can change the meaning of a situation. How can you turn the loss of a contract into an opportunity to change the type of clients you work with? How can you turn a market decline into a spur for innovation?

Learning. If this issue or situation was designed to provide you with practical and valuable insights and learning that you can take forward for further success, what would that learning be?



Take control.

Stress results when the demands of the job seem to exceed your resources to meet them. The feeling of being in control of rather than at the mercy of events is highly associated with reduced levels of stress. Sense of Control is perhaps the number 1 determinant of stress levels.

Bring in colleagues. You are not superman/woman. A team with proper delegation will help enormously. Hold regular meetings with you in the Chair. Ask:

  • What’s our latest assessment of the situaiton?
  • What are we seeking to achieve in the short, medium and long-term?
  • What is working/do we need to intensify?
  • What is not working/do we need to change?
  • What are we going to do?

Just as you would not load all the weight of a building into one or two points, it is better to spread the load across a number of loading-bearing structures (aka colleagues).



A recent Harvard University study found that leaders had lower levels of cortisol. Whether that is 1) a natural trait (i.e. people get promoted because they appear unflappable and in control or 2) a consequence of having more control over events by virtue of position, remains to be seen.

However, it is clear that the ability to take on challenges and not succumb to pressure is good for us personally and for the business.  It allows us to take on new growth projects with energy.  It gives us the determination to resolve sticky and time-consuming problems.

I am pretty certain that organisations who help their leaders and managers to increase their sense of control without being controlling (which pushes stress down) will generally out-perform those who don’t.  And it makes for happier people.  Which is really the most important reason to tackle it.


Jim McLaughlin is highly practical and experienced in helping organisations and people through growth.  If you or someone you know someone who would benefit from some assistance in getting clear and powering ahead, get in touch for a friendly, free chat.  Jim McLaughlin 07931 382676 


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