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Education and Career

CEOs under pressure – coping with the demands of leadership

A recent study by OnePoll for Axa PPP highlighted that almost half of Britain’s senior managers are under near constant stress, with an overwhelming majority (92%) admitting that they had suffered from stress at some point.

A high pressured business environment can affect the quality of leadership and impact their people negatively.

One of the biggest problems is that leaders under pressure tend to neglect the development of their people to focus on their immediate business challenges. Teams are left without direction and clear goals – a cardinal sin in leadership.

When leaders are under too much pressure they also cease to be able to see what is really happening in their business and may compound this issue with self-denial that they are in any way at fault.

Everyone has a pressure limit and pressure affects people in different ways. It might be argued that the lucky ones are those that are affected by poor health as they are forced to slow down and pause for thought, while others push on even harder to try to work through the pressure.

Researchers evaluated the hormone levels of male executives in an executive education programme at Harvard and concluded that stress can inhibit the leadership qualities associated with high levels of testosterone.

The study showed that high levels of testosterone and low levels of the stress hormone cortisol resulted in high leadership quality. “Stress reduction has leadership implications,” explained lead study author Gary Sherman, Ph.D., “It can unleash leadership potential in employees who might otherwise not show it.”

The first casualty of pressure is truth. In leaders who find themselves under pressure their levels of cortisol increases, their behaviour changes, their professionalism and respect for themselves and others can falter, their relationships can become strained and the quality of their decision-making can be impacted. It is a disastrous situation and it can have very serious consequences for many people.

Pressure is endemic, so how can people cope? Pressure creates a state of mind and a warped view of reality which is rarely noticed by the victim. Worse still, some view stress as a badge of honour. Far from feeling like a victim, for them it means that they are delivering great value and are of great importance: “I cannot be important unless I am under pressure,” which is a rather insane view.

When people are operating under great pressure they can make basic errors and ignore the truisms of life, so the guidance for removing excessive, damaging stress is going to sound like common sense – as it should.

  1. Leaders need greater awareness of themself and others. Without self-awareness a leader cannot see how to best serve his or her people and themselves. They need to empower others by having confidence in them and delegate to them so they are free to focus on what they are best suited to do.
  1. Creating space for thinking is essential. This means getting away from the desk or the office and ensuring there are no distractions Take one, two but no more than three issues and take the time to consider them without the risk of interruption. Then discuss the resultant thinking with peers. This will achieve focus and clear the mind of the weight of issues, which will always cloud the brain and compound pressure.
  1. Focus on clear and simple direction. Excess pressure is usually associated with unclear priorities and unclear direction. To bring back clarity, review and refresh the essentials of the role and the mission. Complexity is another added pressure but most complexity can be simplified. Simplification means efficiency and more predictable execution and results. It means more people can understand what their goals are and deliver them, thus lessening pressure.
  1. Get back to clear decision making. Under pressure, a leader can very easily become unclear and inconsistent. This causes the whole team to lose focus. Everyone needs to understand what the leader wants and the better that this is understood; the more the team will support the leader.
  1. Trust your team. Give employees the freedom to succeed and achieve. Invest and develop your people and ensure the right people are hired.
  1. Gain consensus and alignment. Ensure that everyone understands and buys into the team’s mission and goals. If everyone understands the aims then they can agree and support the mission as a team. Gaining a shared purpose makes life easier for the leader and as a consequence this is an area of essential effort.


By Stephen Archer, Director, Spring Partnerships.

CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Education and Career - CEOs under pressure – coping with the demands of leadership
Stephen Archer
Stephen Archer is a founding partner of UK business strategy and leadership consultancy, Spring Partnerships.