Four Fierce Leadership Techniques to Self-Manage Stress Reduction

[Learn how fierce leadership can significantly reduce your stress and your response to it.]

Stress is an integral part of the modern workplace. When we harness it for short bursts of intense activity it can be positive. However, when it overpowers us it can ultimately become debilitating: our never ending task list has us stuck on a downward spiral of constant catchup mode and an “are we there yet?” mentality that breaks down our resilience and leads to burn out. We can counter and reverse this spiral by being fierce in our response to stress and changing both the way we process stressful experiences and how we get back to our baseline of equilibrium and openness.

There are four self-management methods we can use as fierce leaders to reduce stress and change our response to it:
1. Transforming your narrative and renaming;
2. Consistently accessing your internal guidance system;
3. Easing yourself into the pressure; and
4. Shifting rewards to different behaviours.

Transforming your narrative and renaming

On retreats I like to use an exercise to show the prevalence of narrative and how it can influence and impact our decision-making, performance and well-being. There are usually around 40 people at this session. I choose 9 volunteers, divided into 3 teams. The first 3 are going to start the exercise and the second and third teams are asked to leave the room for now. The first 3 are given a set of blank post-it notes and tasked with labelling 5 items within the room. They must then each create a narrative around those items based on how they’ve labelled them and share that with the rest of the attendees, other than with the teams who are still waiting outside the room. The second 3 are then invited to rejoin the group and create their own narrative based on the first 3’s set of labels. They are then asked to be 100% more positive and upbeat and then they are tasked with renaming the labels on the 5 items according to their new emotions. The 3rd team is then invited into the room and asked to create a narrative based on the upbeat labels team 2 has applied.

This exercise demonstrates three things. Firstly, that it can be random as to how we name things and situations we encounter. And that everyone may see the same thing, but give it a different name. Try another simpler exercise: go for a drive with your partner and identify 5 things on your drive for each of you to name. Get them to write these down. Are any labelled the same? How about all 5? The following day ask your partner to be fierce, take a few deep breaths and rename these 5 items, while you activate your fight or flight mode and rename them yourself. Do you see a marked difference?

Secondly, the retreat exercise demonstrates that the names and labels we apply to things, experiences and perceptions and the narrative that we generate as a result can significantly influence much of our subsequent actions and behavior.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this exercise demonstrates that by choosing to rename we can transform things and ourselves.

Consistently accessing your internal guidance system

Leadership is partially about being able to analyse complex inputs on a constantly shifting landscape and making impactful decisions within sometimes severe time constraints. This is a foundational skill for leaders. Fierce leaders re able to build on this skill by creating a strong internal guidance system that includes their principles and values, but also takes into consideration the goal, mission and purpose of their organisation and the meta-landscape within which their organisation is operating. While this guidance system is not rigid, fierce leaders parse their decisions against their system to ensure that it is directionally correct. When a leader has access to all the information on a situation and can take their time in coming to a decision then it may not seem so important for them to check in with their guidance system. However, leaders are seldom presented with all the information and have to make decisions under immense time and external pressures, such as competing interests wanting to ensure a decision is made that suits them. These are the times when fiercely adhering to a strong internal guidance system can be essential.

Fierce leaders are more likely to provide consistently sounds decisions and set compelling strategies because they are clear on who they are and on why they have showed up in their role.

Easing yourself into the pressure

How do you currently dealt with high pressure situations? Most people amp themselves up and let their evolutionary fear mechanisms take over: they tense their muscles and jaw, narrow their eyes and breath shallowly to conserve oxygen and energy; they try to focus in on the threat instinctively believing that by doing so they will be tackle it head on and dissipate it quickly. It may seem counterintuitive, but fierce leaders don’t let evolution take over: they relax their muscles and jaw, open their eyes wider and take long, slow and deep breaths: they consider the wides array of factors impacting on a situation. Essentially, fierce leaders ease themselves into the pressure. This affects the situation dramatically: by opening up instead of closing down they release some of the pressure around that event, which gives them clearer headspace within which to make decisions and take action.

Shifting rewards to different behaviours
A high pressure situation that demands our attention and decisive action can be a catalyst for us to revert to default habits. We can modulate the impact of a habit by unpacking it into its three core elements: the trigger, which catalyses it – in our example, a high pressure situation; the constitutional habitual behavior itself – how we react to the high pressure situation; and the reward we receive for presenting this behavior – the high pressure situation is diverted. Directing our attention to each of these elements separately gives us more power of choice. We may not like the behavior that is triggered by a particular high pressure situation and undertake to not let it be triggered in the future. While it is true that whatever we pay attention to and become aware of will begin to change, focusing on the trigger is not sufficient to bring about meaningful change in our habits. This is particularly true in the modern workplace where leaders face a constant barrage of high pressure situations and their is no respite from trigger events during which we can take the time to shift our habits. However, we can make meaningful change happen in real time by focusing on the third habitual element: the reward, and shifting it to a different behavior. Consider whether the reward you are getting is leading to outcomes you want for your business and yourself. If not, this is a sign that you should make a change in reward-behaviour placement.

Karen is slammed with meetings preparing for year end. At the same time she’s dealing with leadership counterparts at a company that is merging with hers, and they are becoming a little tricky. Matthew is a senior member of her team, but in the last month things have not been going well for him as his sales team has lost two big accounts. He also has a penchant for barging into Karen’s office unannounced.

It’s a Tuesday morning and she is having a meeting with the merger company CEO in an hour and is grappling with some of the intricacies of the deal, when Matthew walks in and interrupts her train of thought. He blurts out that they have lost a really strategic account. This is like a red rag to a bull. She doesn’t see the worry lines on his face, nor does she hear the nervous quaver in his voice. All she sees is an object of intense and immediate frustration and a focal point for her to direct the anger that has been building up since the merger began a few months ago.

She blasts Mathew, telling him she is extremely disappointed with him and asking how he could have let yet another monumental disaster happen. She doesn’t wait for an answer. Did he not know how difficult this would make her bonus discussions with the board in two weeks? She stands up from her desk and ushers him to her door, shouting down the corridor for him to fix the situation by the end of the day or polish his resume. She slams her door closed knowing full well that the entire office has heard her outburst. She pauses for a moment, smiling inwardly and rewarding herself with the thought that she has yet again shown up an employee and is still in control.

A week later the merger is continuing to hound Karen and the end of year results are not looking good. She arrives back at her office at 7 AM after having taken a coffee break and finds Matthew waiting outside. She steels herself, fully expecting to have another outburst, and as she sits down behind her desk calls him in, “What now?” He tells her that he has managed to not only turn around the situation with the three clients that had threatened to walk but that his team has closed another large account. She relaxes her shoulders and thinks to herself that Matthew’s newfound abilities are a direct result of her outburst at him.

But then Matthew does something unexpected: he hands her a manila envelope telling her it’s his resignation letter. How will she explain to the board that not only has the company had the worst performance since she took over the reign, may not complete the merger and that she has also lost one of her star performers. She certainly hadn’t seen this coming and it was not the result she had been looking for when she shouted at Matthew.

Let’s break this case study down into its core habitual elements. Karen was under stress and was triggered by Matthew announcing the loss of an important client account.  The behavior this triggered was her shouting at him for not living up to expectations. The reward was that she felt powerful, in control and released some of her intangible frustration. It’s unintended and counterproductive consequence was the loss of a valuable member of staff.

Had she noticed the signs she would’ve seen that not only was he nervous, but he also was sleep deprived. This pointed to him caring a lot about the situation. But what she didn’t know was that Matthew’s mother had passed away the day before and the loss of the strategic accounts was due to a policy change that Karen had signed off on a month before.

        “Leaders are constantly one piece of information away from a breakthrough shift in mindset.” 

Had she known this she might have reacted very differently, but with a long history of similar outbursts and a string of disengaged and former staff it is unlikely that she would not react in this way with other people in the future. Instead of trying to prevent such trigger events from happening, she could have changed the situation significantly by shifting the reward to a different behavior such as feeling compassion towards Matthew.

By holding back her frustration and opening up to the situation more fully she may have noticed his elevated anguish and realised that something else was at play than loss of face or the fear of losing his job. Asking him how he was doing may have released a flow of emotion. He had intended to ask for time off to deal with his personal loss and wanted to not only tell her why clients were bailing, but also how he planned to turn the situation around. Giving him the opportunity to open up would not only have assuaged his anguish and fears, increased his engagement within the company and elevated her as a leader in his eyes, but it would also have made her feel good, in control and reduced her frustration and stress.  Matthew would have become a more trusted member of her team, something that she sorely lacked. Same result, different behavior and a very different outcome.

 

Fierce Leadership and Breakthrough Experiences: Modern Leadership Practices for Success

In this post we are going to continue to explore fierce leadership as an essential modern leadership practice.

Fierce companies are at the vanguard of modern leadership practices because they understand that it is imperative to invest into their people as the cost of doing nothing means a huge bottom line impact through staff turnover and disengagement. Fierce companies cultivate their people’s potential rather than having them leave in droves to find places where they can reach beyond their capabilities. Fierce companies enable fierce leadership practices so that their executives and teams are able to draw on their inner resources and thrive in the fast-paced and ever-changing modern environment.

Fierce leadership can be defined as the practice of helping one self and others to follow their passion and purpose, while leading their lives with maximum clarity, connection and integrity.

Fierce leaders strengthen their leadership presence by fostering compassion and mindfulness; they harness this presence to power their decision-making and execution to the benefit of others and themselves.

Fierce leadership is a transformative discipline that uses breakthrough experiences and epiphanies to change the paradigm for leaders: they increasingly see themselves and the world around them differently which results in them positively changing their leadership activities, such as how they use their influence and pursue goals; they discover where their current leadership approach is lacking and not producing desired results; they shift their attitude and the way in which they view situations and their positioning in such situations, particularly high stress situations; and they approach their roles in business and society with more authenticity, care and purpose which results in exponentially better outcomes.

Through the practice of being fierce leaders can strip away narrative that doesn’t serve them and as a result become clear on what is happening in their minds on a moment by moment basis. By focusing on the paradigms from which they have been operating and inquiring into what beliefs and mindsets have been limiting them they can create a breakthrough experience for themselves; this gives them the epiphany that, firstly, they can have control over their thoughts and the attitudes and actions that follow such thoughts, and secondly, this control empowers them to have choices by illuminating counterproductive and dysfunctional behaviours and habits, how they form and how to break them.

This practice of fierce leadership can be kickstarted by a leader themselves or they can join colleagues within the safe space of a retreat to get to know one another better and share breakthrough experiences together.

After a recent 5-day retreat organised for a company to explore fierce leadership, Michael who had been with the company for 25 years and worked his way up to a senior executive position said that this was the first time he had the opportunity to invest in his own development in such a significant way. He felt that he got to know both himself and his colleagues at a much deeper and more meaningful level than had ever been possible in the day to day of being in the office. In many ways he had felt that over the years his engagement systems, his corporate life support mechanisms, had been progressively shutting down. The retreat boosted his personal energy levels and for the first time in many years he felt truly alive and excited. His team recognised this change when he returned to the office and soon thereafter he was reaching out for further fierce leadership training both for himself and his division.

Jessica, a twenty seven year old vice president felt that her breakthrough experience at the same retreat involved an intergenerational insight that all executives are dealing with similar stresses and issues. While we all react differently to similar situations there is much common ground in that, as leaders, we are all having to make complex decisions with incomplete information. As a result she was able to work with other generations without judgment. She found herself getting more done in the company through her increased ability to collaborate and persuade other executives to join her in achieving outcomes that had more impact on their company and across their ecosystem.

 

11 Reasons Business Executives Must Reinvent Themselves as Fierce Leaders

Over the last few decades there has been an accelerating growth in self-centred, exploitative management and dehumanisation in the corporate workplace. Recently there has been a silent revolt against this unprecedented epidemic as evidenced by the astronomically high levels of corporate disengagement, particularly amongst the newer generations entering the workforce. How can leaders reinvent themselves and adopt a more humanistic management ethos to counter this epidemic? It requires nothing short of becoming a fierce leader: creating an embodied practice of management that includes qualities such as respect, empowering leaders to influence for better rather than worse and ultimately this will create a magnetic attractor for top talent who reject outright working in degrading environments.

What does it mean to be fierce as a leader?
We know it when we see it in action: when I stood on the Grand Parade in Cape Town as Nelson Mandela gave his presidential inauguration speech in 1994 my eyes filled with tears. He embodied fierce leadership in every fibre of his being; his presence and poise in the face of decades of dehumanising behavior was unforgettable. But we also know it when we see it in the mannerisms of a board member or the attitude of an executive running a team meeting: they are fully in the moment.

The four critical elements to being a fierce leader
Fierce leadership requires us to train our minds.  This training creates a formidable practice so that we can deal with modern day business and our susceptibility to the following situation: as a result of being constantly subjected to the 24 seven pressures of work and despite our best intentions, our resilience can break down even in noncritical situations and we can revert to bad-management-autopilot.

However, there are four critical elements to building a fierce leadership practice that help prevent this type of autopilot from kicking in. We do need to constantly tend to our practice by nurturing and supporting these elements.  We should see these elements as both aspirational and practical and use our best efforts to work on being stronger at each one individually as well as together.

1. Altruism and humanity –
Seeing beyond our current office and role and being aware that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and our organisations gives us a capacity for much deeper understanding. It also increases our capability to take a serving stance through which we treat others as human beings rather than exploiting them as objectified resources.

2. Lucid clarity –
Dealing with what is showing up in the moment, what is here now as opposed to what happened in the past (“this is the way we’ve always done things around here”) or what is projected to happen (“if we can close this deal we will sell our products and more parts of the world”).

3. Imaginative openness –
Considering all angles and holding diametrically opposed points of view in our heads as we work through the implications of the choices we make is crucial. This requires both a highly developed imagination and ensuring there is sufficient spaciousness in our minds within which to explore, over and above all the clutter of a busy daily executive life.

4. Core focus –
Determining what we want to focus our attention on and maintaining that focus despite a myriad things trying to take us off task.

The benefits of a fierce leadership practice
As our practice grows we find ourselves:
* influencing more often for better than worse in not only the big impactful decisions we make, but also every minute of every day;
* becoming more focused and this lucidity of thought gives us the opening to deal innovatively with situations based on our efforts to deeply understand what they mean for us and others and compassionately realising the consequences impact of our choices;
* shifting our stance to lead by inspiration rather than expectation;
* finding ourselves considering others in their positions with more openness and respect
* becoming aware very quickly when thoughts aren’t true to ourselves and having the ability to redirect before we react
* more often exuding qualities that engaged people look for such as kindness and humour, and being more highly communicative – as fierce leaders we do this despite these qualities not necessarily being reflected in our organisational KPIs;
* finding ourselves getting more stuff done because we are more confident, have increased emotional intelligence, are more collaborative and have a greater ability to influence others;
* rejecting the negative narrative we may form around not being on 24 seven and being able to control when we communicate to only those times when we can be more actionable, considered and effective – this in turn frees us up to be more present in our daily non-work related activities such as exercise and family time and also frees up our people from following the bad precedent we were setting by, for example, emailing them at 11h30pm and expecting an immediate response;
* more able to be resilient and pause in any situation, no matter high pressured, and check in with ourselves how we are feeling about that situation before reacting – are we subject to any biases, is our response going to have unintended consequences, are we being mindful of all the variables at play;
* and at times of uncertainty when it feels like taking any action would be like stepping off a cliff, we are able to comfortably take that first step because we are capable of listening to our inner wisdom and trusting more completely in the unfolding without needing to always control or force what will happen.

Individual fierce leadership can also rapidly activate a culture of being fierce across an organisation which creates a strong magnetic attractor for top talent.

In subsequent posts I will go into more detail on how to build a fierce leadership practice and realise its benefits.