by Carly Chynoweth
Almost all successful business leaders go through times when they feel confused, discouraged and unsure of themselves. They may feel they are in the wrong place, doing the wrong job, and find it hard to believe others in similar roles can feel the same way, said Robert Kaplan, former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, who is a professor of management at Harvard Business School.
Acknowledging this and building strategies to overcome it can significantly improve performance. “A key difference between those who reach their potential and those who don’t is how they deal with these periods of confusion and uncertainty,” he writes in his book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror.
“The trick lies not in avoiding these difficult periods; it lies in knowing how to step back, diagnose, regroup, and move forward.”
His book recommends learning how to ask critical questions of yourself and encouraging constructive criticism from others.
Leaders who develop a strong team around them will also be more able to delegate — reducing their workload — and will have access to a more effective sounding board than those who are determined to go it alone.
“One of the biggest things a leader must fear is isolation, and the more successful you are the more isolated you become,” said Kaplan. “People tiptoe around you, they are a little less willing to give you bad news and you feel more alone.
“You may also feel that you cannot confide in people about the issues you are struggling with … people need to learn that being stoic or keeping your own counsel is not necessarily a sign of strength.”
By the time people reach the top they tend to be fairly good at managing pressure; chief executives tend to be better than average at dealing with stress, said Michael Greenspan, who leads the board development practice at Kiddy & Partners, the business psychologist.
“The role is incredibly stressful, and if you speak to chairmen and chief executives who have been in the industry 10 or 15 years they will tell you that the stress has increased, but by and large these people are incredibly stress tolerant and can perform successfully at high levels of stress,” he said.
This ability to cope with setbacks and change is one of the important characteristics associated with leaders and potential leaders, said Eugene Burke, chief science officer at SHL, the talent measurement business.
“It is not that these people are wired differently [to handle stress better] but that they have a higher ability to recognise that they need to develop coping mechanisms,” he said. “Being smart does not differentiate people. Nor does being achievement-focused — that’s how they got [to the top] — but having a good network does.
“Having people they can sound off to helps them to develop coping mechanisms. It’s people who are smart enough to realise that they need to be able to take time out.”
They also tend to have a good work-life balance and a range of cognitive strategies — ways of thinking — that help them to be more resilient, said Brian Marien, chief executive of Positive Health Strategies, a consultancy. These strategies centre on how people talk to themselves when they face difficulties or things going wrong.
Rather than going over events again and again, which usually causes even more unhappiness as whatever it was that went wrong is relived, they tell themselves that it is normal to feel upset for a time and that it will pass.
They are also good at accepting reality rather than wishing things were different. “Resilient people accept very quickly what has happened, that they are where they are,” Marien said. “They let go of emotion quickly and they do not ruminate.”
They also know how to step back from situations and consider them objectively. “They ask themselves, what would I say if a friend or colleague came to me with this? They become their own mentor, their own coach, which gives them distance from the emotional vortex.”
These and other cognitive techniques can be learnt — and the earlier in their career they do it, the better, Marien said. “One of the most important things you can do [as a potential business leader] is start building those skills before you get to that level.
“There is no doubt that if you give people these techniques, it can immunise them — not in the sense that it stops stress entirely, but it ameliorates the problem and allows them to cope more effectively.”
Being able to recognise that everyone goes through rough patches and that it is OK to ask for support is another important part of the picture. “If someone starts to feel wobbly, to think, ‘I’m pathetic, I should be able to cope’, that is a very good indicator that things could get worse,” Marien said.
“But if they think, ‘it’s normal, it’s OK, but I might go and chat to someone about it’, then they can head it off at the pass. Simply talking to someone about it and recognising that sometimes these things happen can help, and can be enough to get people back on track.”
Marien believes executive coaches should be trained to be able to have conversations about stress and to refer people for clinical support, as prejudices about mental illness can make it harder for business people to talk to therapists or doctors. A talk with a coach does not carry the same stigma.