Managing the Stress and Distress of Leadership

by | Dec 30, 2023 | Leadership | 0 comments

Stress is our normal reaction to possible threats in our environment. Faced with anticipated danger, stress enables us to fight, flee, or hide if necessary. When the threat ends, the stress dissipates. Stress becomes distress and distressing when the sense of threat does not end or repeats too often.

Stress has two component that will help us understand how we can manage it rather than have it manage us: 1) a perceived threat and 2) something we value. The greater the perceived threat and the greater value we’ve placed on what is being threatened the higher the level of stress.

We typically react to stress automatically. However, as we manage either, we will control our stress rather be managed by it.

Managing Perceived Threat

Our perceptions are based on past experiences and lessons we’ve learned. They allow us to know what is happening in the present based on the past. We know what is happening in the present because our perception tells us it is similar if not identical to something that happened in the past.

Though our perceptions are often accurate, they are still assumptions and interpretations and may be inaccurate. We are often misguided by perceptions that are in fact not threatening at all.

Most all leaders have felt the stress of a looming deadlines. As a new deadline is approaching, we are likely to re-experience the stress of the earlier experience. That replay may not accurately reflect the current situation.

Once we understand we are experiencing replay, we can question if the current situation is actually threatening and worthy of stress. Maybe, we are better prepared for this deadline. Or perhaps we need our stress response to get done what needs to be done.

Here’s a story of how one leader deals with the demands of his job:

The president of a university asked me to do a stress management workshop for his leadership cabinet. I asked him how he dealt with his stress. He said he goes fishing. I smiled and gave him the “tell me more” look. He said, “I’m constantly bombarded with demands from my board, the faculty, students, alumni, community. It never ends. There’s no way to get on top of it. I understand that, and I don’t let it bother me. When it gets too much anyway, I go fishing. When I get back, it’s all still there; but I’m in much better shape to deal with it all.”

A key phrase is “and I don’t let it bother me.” The president understands our response to stress is a choice. The serenity prayer comes to mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Rather than wait for God to grant him that serenity and wisdom, our college president granted it to himself. Before his stress becomes distress, he goes fishing.

What might you choose so that your stress doesn’t become distress?

Managing Value Conflicts

Many leaders early in their tenure believe they must meet all demands, particularly their own, to be an effective leader. They are setting themselves up for distress.

Anytime we attempt to perform beyond our physical and mental capacities as our stress will turn into distress. Trying to meet all demands all the time is fruitless and will run up against the law of diminishing returns.

Our university president had learned the hard way that his physical and mental was more important than his ego ideal of meeting all demands.

The leader of a small not-for-profit told me about a problem with two employees who not only weren’t performing well and causing issues with other employees. Both were in their first jobs out of college. She was concerned that if she fired them, she would damage their self-confidence.

She continually oscillated between her compassion for the two and wanting to remove the damage they were doing to her organization. These two contrasting values were the source of her distress.

After much discussion, she decided to let the employees go. But she offered them her organization’s employee counseling service. This soften the blow and eased her conscience.

Another story: I was asked to help the new general manager of a major market television station. Over lunch he complained to me about the stress of his new role. I asked about to tell me what was stressing him so much. He said “trying to look good” in the face of feeling incompetent in his new role. He was losing weight and losing sleep at night.

The value he placed on “looking good” and hiding his incompetence was causing him a great deal of distress. Ironically, it was preventing him from looking good as an effective general manager and leader.

Ways to Prevent Stress from Becoming Distress

Leadership comes with a range of stressors. If allowed to become distress, they can affect our performance and our physical, mental, and emotional health.

The pressure to make critical decisions, the constant scrutiny from both subordinates and superiors, and the need to maintain a vision for the future while managing daily operations can be overwhelming.

Being intentional and deliberate in what we perceive as threatful and what we choose to value can mitigate the impact of these stressors.

When stress has become distress, our choices become automatic, habitual, and often contrary to self-care. Self-care allows us to be deliberate and intentional about our choices.

A a good night’s sleep, regular short breaks throughout the day, regular meditation are all valuable self-care tactics. They allow us to breathe, reflect, and plan our next steps without being overwhelmed by the immediate demands of leadership.

Finally, we need support. When events are about to overwhelm us, self-awareness and self-care are rarely in our thoughts. We need friends and colleagues to notice. We need to contract with them to remind us we can still make thoughtful choices and to take care of ourselves.

Manage your stress. Don’t let it manage you. Set a good example for your teams. You’ll foster a healthier and more productive work environment.


Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems

Michael Broom is an organization psychologist of 45 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game.

Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour consultation at or email him at You’ll be surprised the difference a single hour can make!

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