Stress is a feeling of emotion that can rise from any event or thought that elicits anger, tension, frustration, or fear. What always follows stress is a reaction on the part of the person being stressed. This part is universal. Stress equals reaction. The question now becomes, “How do you react to stress?” Stress is the emotion that takes away our rational thought, if only for a moment. Therefore, under stress, you go to the reaction you have hard wired in your brain over the years. In other words, you go to what you know. Now the question changes from, “How do you react?” to, “What do you know?” Because what you know will determine how you react.
Do you know anger? Compassion? Thoughtfulness? Sarcasm? Panic? Cluelessness? Randomness? Blankness? Seclusion? Insults? Blame?
Books and doctoral dissertations are dedicated to this subject, so my intent is not to provide the panacea for all things stress and related reactions. It is to provide an avenue for thought, reflection, and self-assessment. These are the things leaders do. They think, they reflect, they self-assess.
So back to the original thought. What do you know when stress greets you? My belief is that you should know process. Some of us might say we want to be calm under stress. That is certainly a good place to be, but you don’t get to calm under stress by willing yourself there. Some may say they want to act under stress. Again, a great place to be. But again, you don’t get to action, at least not meaningful, well thought out action, under stress by simply willing yourself there. Whatever noun you want to associate yourself with under stress will only come from the process you follow under stress to get there.
The first part of the process is recognition. If you are a leader who is full of ego and self-importance, you likely will not allow yourself the privilege of identifying stress has overtaken you. You look at stress as weakness, or at least identify stress as weakness. When this is your stance, your reactions to stress are random, ill conceived, and destructive. I know this as fact because I’ve been there myself and I’ve watched others fall off the leadership cliff simply because they were too ego driven to identify an important emotion like stress and what it does to the decision-making process.
Let’s assume you are not the egotistical, self-important leader who believes they are above identifying the emotions they are experiencing. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, then the chances are excellent you are a thoughtful leader who is willing to listen to any point of view if it will make them better. Your first drill in the process to handle stress is to be hyper aware of your emotions throughout the day. This is simple in concept, but extremely difficult in practice. Welcome to leadership. There are countless ways to do this. One way is to write down your emotions during the day as they come to you. It’s simply a technique to get you thinking about your emotions. Once you’ve done this, start evaluating how you are reacting to each emotion. Once we start identifying our emotions and how we instinctively react to them, we can then begin the next part of the process.
My personal process under stress is to answer a series of identified questions. It takes emotion out of the process. It is a place to go that ensures a degree of certainty amidst the uncertainty stress causes us. I first identify the situation. This is simply the set of circumstances that is causing us the stress. It is hard to do but becomes infinitely easier if we master the drill of identifying our emotions. Next, after I’ve identified the situation, I identify what I want to accomplish. What is my goal? Once I’ve identified the situation causing me stress and then determined what I want to accomplish amidst the stressful situation, I identify a few actions I need to immediately take to achieve my goal. For every action I’ve decided on to achieve my goal, I always identify one or two things that can go wrong with that action and then account for how I will respond to them. Next, I consider how I will communicate to those I need to communicate with. Finally, I remind myself that I may not be in charge of the situation that has led to my stress, but I am in charge of my reaction. And for me, my reaction is the process I just described.
One final point: you’ll miss the mark and you’re likely to miss it a lot, especially early on in this journey. That’s ok because it doesn’t change anything other than the fact you are late to the game. In other words, once you realized that stress elicited the very response you didn’t want, you can still go back to the questions to fix your initial poor reaction. Better to be there early, but also better to get there a little late than not at all.
The beauty of these questions are they are universal. Use them in your personal life or professional life. Use them to deal with the checkout clerk at the grocery store or while under fire in a combat situation. Use them anywhere stress is present.
Let’s review a very basic example. You are home on a Saturday evening and begin to feel tightness in your chest. You immediately give recognition to this feeling and start to ask yourself what is happening around you that is causing this stress. Since you are hyper aware of your emotions and you go to what you know under stress…process…you are able to determine the situation.
It is your two young children badgering you for the thousandth time about wanting an ice pop. It is also your dog chewing on another of your children’s toys they have left out after you’ve told them to put it away, and they ignored you, again. Then your spouse asks you if you’re either going to get the kids an ice pop or stop the dog from chewing on the toy.
What’s your goal? You remind yourself that you want to provide an environment of calm and communication in your household at all costs. That is your goal. Some of your immediate actions may be to simply go get the toy from the dogs mouth and calmly tell the children they cannot have an ice pop. What can go wrong? The children respond with even more commitment to the ice pop request and your dog runs away with the toy in its mouth. Thankfully neither of those things happen, but you’re ready if they do.
How do you communicate? Maybe after you complete these two actions you tell your spouse you are a little frustrated and you need a second to compose yourself. When you calm down and asses your emotions, maybe you go back and explain to your spouse why you were so stressed, and you both discuss how to address the children together, calmly. Whatever it is, you consider how you communicate with the people who are at risk of being the victim of your stress. In this case, your spouse. And you do it in a way that continues to achieve your goal.
Finally, and as always, you remind yourself that you are in complete control of how you react to this very common stress. In the moment, it does not matter how the stress happened. That analysis is for later. What matters is that you go to a process that allows for an unemotional and methodical response to a stressful situation that could become otherwise emotionally charged.
Is this remedy perfect? Probably not. But it’s predictable and it is a place I go under stress because I know it intimately at this point in my life. It provides me certainty. I may not be certain how the situation will turn out, but I’m certain about how I’m going to handle it. In the end, this is better than just hoping things will work out because hope is not a process or strategy.
Think, reflect, assess, and give it a try. It’s hard, but welcome to leadership.
Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coaching, keynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.