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facing stress monster  illustration | accountingweb | How stress can change you as a leader

Be a better leader by making stress your friend


Stress can be disabling but Lucy Cohen, one of the headline speakers at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping, explains that harnessing the benefits can change you as a leader.

5th Feb 2024
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Stress! Nasty feeling, right? In the modern world, we’re bombarded with messaging on how to avoid or reduce it. Linked to myriad negative side effects – everything from insomnia, alopecia, heart attacks and high blood pressure – stress is seen primarily as a thoroughly unpleasant blight on our lives.

In business, there’s the stressed boss archetype. They drink too much, shout at their families, sleep poorly, and seem to be a slave to a corporation that doesn’t care for them. We see those people and rightly desire to be nothing like them.

So, stress is bad. Or is it?

In our efforts to reduce or eliminate stress from our lives, it seems we have forgotten that experiencing stress is a normal part of being a human, and while it’s important to be able to manage the stress you feel, I don’t think the complete elimination of stress is helpful. I fear that the fetishisation of a soft life is paving the way for people to be unable to cope with the normal day-to-day challenges that are thrown at them, both scheduled and unexpected. 

Learning resilience

I’m in no way saying that everyone just needs to suck it up and put up with bad bosses, unreasonable workloads, or be expected to have a stiff upper lip during times of emotional need. But I do worry that if we don’t get exposed to stress, and learn how to deal with it to a certain degree, we are creating problems for ourselves down the line. The word “resilience” got contorted during the Covid pandemic, with some unscrupulous sectors using it as a stick to beat their terrified and burned-out staff with. But resilience is a positive trait, and to build resilience, you need to have experienced a degree of adversity – and one such adversity is overcoming stressful situations.

Benefits of experience

I’ve been running Mazuma for over 17 years, and I often joke that I wish I had last year’s problems. Why? Because what seemed like climbing Everest last year, this year feels like a speed bump. It was stressful and unpleasant at the time but, faced with an equatable issue again, it’s more than manageable. Living through the stressful experience, learning that it wouldn’t kill me, and understanding how I might approach it again made me a better leader.

We’ve recently received investment at Mazuma. This signifies a huge change to how we’ll progress the company from the bootstrapping we've become accustomed to, into a far slicker operation. The process of raising investment is challenging, to say the least! Months of business plans, forecasts, due diligence and meetings. You have to live in two worlds – the first in executing the plan as if the investment were never to happen (there’s still a company to be run, after all!), and the second in building foundations for when the investment lands. 

In training

Was the process stressful? Of course it was. It was also manageable, though. My innumerable exposures to stressful situations, challenging times and adversity had prepared me for this. Sure, this was a different beast to anything I had done before, but that has been true of every single new thing we’ve done at Mazuma – so really, what was the difference?

I know that I’m more prone to hurling myself into a challenging environment than most. I have a natural propensity to run head-first at a problem rather than avoid it. People deal with stress in different ways, and we all have our different tolerances. I’m in no way denying that. It is true, however, that what I can handle today is significantly more than I could have 15 years ago, and that’s because I have exposed myself to stress and built my resilience.

Look and learn

As a leader, you have a responsibility to be the best version of yourself. If you are growing a company, you need to set the tone of how your team will deal with the inevitable surprises that come their way. Handling pressure is all a part of that – when your back is against the wall, your team will look to you for reassurance and model their response on yours. If you panic and crumble, it wouldn’t be surprising if your team did the same. If you can calmly take control of the situation and guide your team through it (no matter how many backflips your stomach is secretly doing), you teach them that adversity can not only be overcome but used as a learning experience.

I’d go so far as to say that stress can actually be a transformative experience in a positive way. The word “stress”, so often used in our day-to-day vocabulary, actually has a counterpart – “eustress”. Eustress is the moderate or normal psychological stress of being human that can be beneficial.

 Eustress has been the subject of several studies. Stress, appraisal, and coping by Richard S Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984) is a seminal work, and lays the foundation for understanding the positive aspects of stress. It emphasises that stress is not solely negative but can also lead to positive psychological growth and coping strategies. 

The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions by Barbara L Fredrickson, American Psychologist (2001), is not exclusively about stress, but Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions and their role in building psychological resilience and wellbeing indirectly supports the notion that experiencing and overcoming stress can lead to personal growth and improved coping mechanisms.

Good stress

Think about the sort of stress you might feel before a big presentation or pitching to an important client, or getting work done to a deadline, and you’re likely to think about that little wave of butterflies in your tummy, or a tingle down your spine. That’s the physical impact of stress giving you a bit of a fight or flight kick – upping the adrenaline and cortisol in your body to sharpen your performance. 

Harnessing that correctly, completing the task and then feeling the endorphin rush of a job done well are all positive outcomes of stress that can serve to make you a better leader. It’s a cliche that growth happens outside of your comfort zone, but it does so because that’s where the stressors are. Doing the same thing over and over is easy and doesn’t lead to growth – but stepping outside of that, feeling the stress and powering through it, that’s where you can harness stress to grow as a leader – and a behaviour to model for your team.

Navigating the oft-choppy waters of leadership might have you looking at stress as a constant adversary. Instead, I challenge you to reframe your relationship with stress and try to regard it as an unanticpated ally. 

Catalyst for transformation

Taking a nuanced understanding that stress harbours the potential for both adversity and growth will allow us to embrace it as a catalyst for transformation in our leadership. The journey of a leader is invariably a smorgasbord of experiences where your mettle is well and truly tested. In confronting stress and embracing eustress head-on, we can uncover our own capabilities and set a precedent for those we lead.

In the end, it is our response to stress that defines our leadership journey, turning potential obstacles into stepping stones for success and personal fulfilment.

Hear more leadership advice, wellbeing guidance and practice strategy from Cohen at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping on 13–14 March at the NEC, Birmingham. Book your FREE tickets now.

Replies (5)

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By FactChecker
05th Feb 2024 15:40

The primary problem with "stress" is not the severity or type of it, nor the frequency with which it is experienced, or even the personality of the stressee ... all of which undoubtedly will be factors in how the impact is felt.
The problem is with the word itself ... and the loose way in which it is applied ubiquitously to any vague sense of discomfort/unease with one's life.

At its most basic level, stress is an essential component of both physics and biology - and hence of paramount importance to every human ... physically, emotionally and mentally. After all, what are people doing when they undertake exercise (of any sort) if not deliberately increasing stress of whichever component they wish to improve? And this applies equally to the work environment and indeed to life in general (from relationships with friends & family to interactions with strangers).

If this all seems obvious, the reason I mention it is because most people seem to understand the analogy with physical exercise - and thus the corollary that it's essential the individual understands and manages the situations in which they experience the stress, and so can build on it for the future.
[Anyone that has undergone lengthy physio after a major physical trauma will recognise terms like 'resistance' and 'friction', and the need to 'push but not break' your boundaries.]

But all this is based on 'stress' being used correctly, not just as a lazy cipher for whenever you think that life (or a person) has been unfair to you.

In other words, it's not 'stress' that's bad for you ... it's letting it control you that can do you damage.
Which I *think* means that I agree with Lucy - which would be a first!

Thanks (3)
Replying to FactChecker:
By FactChecker
05th Feb 2024 20:08

BTW if anyone's thinking this is all getting a bit humourless (by my standards), take a couple of minutes to listen to a track from long ago ... that taught me people take themselves too seriously:

Thanks (2)
By Dogracer
06th Feb 2024 17:52

I don’t agree that stress is a good thing, it just leads to bad decisions that leads to more stress.

It is so much better to put your foot on the ball look around and make the telling pass that scores the goal

Thanks (1)
By stepurhan
07th Feb 2024 13:04

I ask both Lucy to stop writing, and AccountingWeb to stop publishing, articles like this. This isn't the first time Lucy has written an article that is effectively about mental health, with a woeful lack of qualification to do so.

If you must publish articles about dealing with workplace stress, get a mental health professional to do so. Publishing articles like this where the author has, at best, a really shallow understanding of the issues around this subject do a lot more harm than good.

Thanks (5)
By Matrix
04th Mar 2024 04:18

I would also be stressed if I had to read your recent Trustpilot reviews!

Filing huge numbers of provisional tax returns would be a concern to me, maybe you have already reached burnout.

Thanks (1)