Six Ways to Manage Leadership Stress

Especially in this treacherous economy, these principles, from maintaining perspective to welcoming feedback, will help keep stress from turning toxic

Effective leaders know that stress can be a good thing. It keeps you focused. It makes you competitive. It prompts action. If you're walking into a big client meeting or giving an important speech and you aren't at least a little anxious about it, you aren't going to do a good job.

But stress can also turn toxic, especially in the brutal economic environment we're in. Long hours, layoffs, and fear of what may be around the corner take a real toll. In more than 40 years of service in the military, higher education, and nonprofits, I've found that managing leadership stress comes down to a handful of critical elements: maintaining perspective, exercising, opening up, welcoming feedback, streamlining, and recharging. In trying to lead through this treacherous economy, I'm relying on those principles now more than ever.

Managing stress starts with keeping your challenges in perspective. No matter how stressed you feel, there's always people in a tougher situation—and they're probably handling it a lot more gracefully than you are. Recently, I gave a talk to my organization about cutting budgets, potential layoffs, and digging even deeper for revenues. It's the same difficult conversation going on in companies all over the world. The whole undertaking was stressful, so I went to a nearby YMCA for a lunchtime workout afterward to unwind.

One of the staff members at the Y has serious problems with her vision. A woman exercising next to me also was physically disabled. Both were working hard and exuding good cheer. My job-related stress will fade in time. They're dealing with challenges that will never go away. But their attitude was far more positive and inspiring than mine that afternoon, and it was a privilege to encounter them.

Potent Weapon

That brings us to a second critical aspect of dealing with stress: staying fit. If you want to sustain your success as a leader over the long term, exercise is crucial. In fact, our research at the Center for Creative Leadership proves it. In working with executives from around the world, we've found those who exercise regularly are rated significantly higher on leadership effectiveness by their bosses, peers, and direct reports than men and women who exercised only sporadically or not at all.

Exercise can be a potent weapon against stress. It helps keep your emotions in check, relaxes you, and boosts your energy. It can be difficult to work exercise into a busy schedule. But if you're not doing it already, find a way to carve out some time on your calendar. Your colleagues—and your family—will thank you.

Stress is also induced by bottling up too much inside. In difficult times, leaders often feel they need to keep information to themselves or make all the important calls alone. There's a simple solution: Open up. True, being transparent makes you vulnerable. But it also makes you authentic—and people are more likely to follow you as a result. The more you unburden yourself, the better you'll feel. The more your colleagues know about what's going on, whether it's good or bad, the better they'll feel.

Feedback Makes You Smarter

During my days as a U.S. Navy pilot, I always wanted to know every possible piece of intelligence before I went out on a mission. I didn't want my bosses holding back because they thought I wouldn't be able to handle something they said. Likewise, before I sent men and women into harm's way, I tried to share everything with them. They were putting their lives and careers on the line. Why be anything but forthcoming with them?

Opening up also requires another—and sometimes more difficult—step: welcoming feedback and criticism. The better your sense of your strengths and weaknesses, the less stressed you'll be. The more ideas and opportunities you consider, the more empowered you'll feel. But this peace of mind comes with a catch: You need to ask people to be honest with you, and you need to recognize you won't always like what they say. Letting your men and women push back makes you smarter. It also reduces their stress because they know they have your ear.

A fifth tip: Streamline your life. That means getting organized and ordering your priorities professionally and personally. How often have we added needless stress to our lives by waiting too long to prep for a meeting or not sharing important information with colleagues quickly enough? Often this happens because we're distracted by competing—and frequently less important—tasks.

'Stop Doing' Lists

In Good to Great (one of my favorite books), Jim Collins puts it this way: "Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding 'to do' lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing—and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of 'stop doing' lists as 'to do' lists."

My advice? Pick a single, unproductive thing that's wasting your time and stop doing it today. Eliminate something else tomorrow. You'll be trimming away stress at the same time.

Finally, take time to recharge. In leadership positions, you tend to work a lot of long days. Be careful not to overdo it. A fanatical devotion to work will make you unproductive in the long run. As my CCL colleagues Vidula Bal, Michael Campbell, and Sharon McDowell-Larsen remind us in their book Managing Leadership Stress, practicing the art of recovery helps you accomplish more in less time.

Professional athletes know that pushing themselves at 100% all of the time does not yield gains in performance over the long term. It just burns them out. So spend time with family and loved ones. Read a book. Trade jokes with a friend. Take a short vacation. Your organization won't fall apart in your absence—and you'll be better prepared to tackle the big challenges.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.