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Book Excerpt: The CEO Test | How to deal with the pressures of leadership

Merryck & Co. Managing Director Adam Bryant and former Chairman and CEO of Amgen Kevin Sharer on what to do and what not to do when faced with the pressures of leadership

April 09, 2021 / 08:33 PM IST

5 Approaches to Deal with Leadership Pressure

While these pressures are particularly magnified for CEOs, every person in a leadership role experiences them to some degree. Here are some approaches that leaders have adopted for dealing with them.

Acknowledge the Pressures

One trap that leaders can fall into is denial about the stresses of the job. They say to themselves, “I deal with pressure all the time. I love pressure. I eat pressure for lunch.” Or their response is one of surrender—“It’s part of the job; there’s nothing I can do about it”—as if they are simply trying to keep from capsizing during a treacherous whitewater rafting trip. Or they defer the work they need to do to restore themselves. “I’ll take care of all that stuff later,” they tell themselves. “This won’t last very long. I’ll go on that vacation for a week, and things will be fine.”

These approaches don’t work, because the nature of stress is that it’s cumulative. Pressures are not just experienced in the moment and then go away; they build on each other, even when things are going well. Now add in the inevitable large and small fires that have to be put out at work. Ideally, those moments of maximum stress would be balanced by relative calm on the home front, yet that never seems to happen; instead, work-life balance becomes perfectly imbalanced, with simultaneous strains at work and at home. Over time, all these pressures start draining your emotional and physical energy reserves and wearing down your resilience. You may have as your highest objective to bring your best self to work every day, yet all the stresses you face will be in opposition to that goal, like a car whose gas tank is low, two cylinders are not firing, and the brakes are seized. Progress will be slow if not impossible. 


Keep Your Ego in Check

As people move up the ranks, each promotion carries with it more status markers. A common sign of ego inflation is when leaders, even of small teams, start dropping the phrase “my staff” into conversations, or they substitute “I” for the company instead of “we,” because they start thinking that they are fully responsible for the success of the organization. For CEOs, armies of people are deployed to look after and anticipate their every need. Invitations flood in to speak at industry conferences. They become the face of the company, and the lines between the enterprise and their identity blur. For anybody who tends to take themselves too seriously, all those signals can conspire to inflate their ego to the size of a balloon in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It can make them overconfident. It can make them unapproachable. It can make them communicate in an arrogant way so that people don’t want to hear them.

Combating those tendencies requires building relationships with a trusted colleague or two who can tell you when you didn’t handle a situation as well as you thought. For CEOs, that person may be their chief human resources officer, whose interests span the overall health and effectiveness of the organization.

Focus on a Few Achievable Goals

Leaders face so many demands on their time, as well as pressures to set stretch goals that are supposed to inspire everyone to do their best. But such goals can also backfire. If the goal is simply too far out of reach, it will demotivate your team, and you will worry about falling short of expectations. It’s better to set goals that are realistic and are in balance between too easy and too ambitious.

You have to practice the meta work of analyzing how you’re spending time to ensure that you’re focused on executing the simple plan that you developed with your team.

Try to Make Yourself Dispensable

There is a common dynamic that can spring up in organizations where work becomes a kind of Ironman competition, with bragging rights earned by starting earlier, working later, and even giving up part of a vacation to handle a crisis. The impulse is understandable, up to a point, as stamina is an important part of succeeding in senior leadership roles. But it can become a status marker that carries a not-so-subtle message of “I’m so central to the success of this organization that I can’t delegate this crucial work to others. If not for me, we would be in trouble.”

For new leaders, whose job is now to succeed through others, shifting this mindset can be difficult. But they need to work on making themselves obsolete rather than being considered as essential as air and water to the enterprise.

Recharge Yourself

We all know what it feels like when we are at our very best. But the pressures of life and work can make it hard for that person to show up as The CEO Test 1consistently as we would like. To do so, you must build time into your schedule to stay physically fit, so that it becomes part of your routine. Exercise is just one of the buffers you need to keep the job from becoming all-consuming. You need to make time for the activities that give a sense of self-renewal and inspiration, whether it’s from nature, art, movies, or a spiritual practice. It is about being constructively selfish, to know what you want and what you need to restore your emotional resilience to take on the demands of work. It means making time for, and being present with, your family, and staying connected to old friends so that you can remind yourself that the job is part of your life, not your whole life. There will always be something urgent at work that conspires to push these priorities to the sidelines, but you have to provide the counterweight of making them equal priorities.

With your batteries recharged, you’ll be more able to help others, and you can see your challenges through fresh eyes to spot new possibilities and regain clarity about what matters most and why. And you will have the emotional space and time to reflect on what you need to do to become more self-aware and how you can grow and develop as a leader.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders by Adam Bryant and Kevin W. Sharer. Copyright 2021 Adam Bryant. All rights reserved.
first published: Apr 9, 2021 08:22 am

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