Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, once described her role in corporate leadership as an almost-surprising discovery of responsibility: "When I was president of the company, I said, 'OK, I can do this -- piece of cake.' Then when you are the CEO, the responsibilities multiply enormously because you worry about everything." She added, to hammer home the point, "As you move up the organization, the requirements for leading that organization don't grow vertically; they grow exponentially."
CEOs are riddled with stress. There is no shortage of fires to put out, new opportunities to pursue, employees to motivate, and customers to acquire. This work often demands more hours than there are in a day. What's more, there is little to no empathy from those inside or outside the company when stress piles up; after all, most startup CEOs are also founders -- they chose to launch their own companies.
The 21st century has added another stress-inducing element to the job: the ever-present eyes of the digital world. Information is gathered cheaply and instantly these days, disseminated to millions of consumers in minutes. This means that there is no leeway anymore; a leader in the spotlight must be always on, articulate, and forward-thinking. One mistake and the world knows before you've recognized it yourself.
So what do you do about this mounting pressure and unavoidable stress? On the surface, it seem you have two options: acknowledge it or compartmentalize.
If you choose to publicly acknowledge your stress, you run the risk of conveying instability to employees, stakeholders, and customers. The result can be catastrophic: guttered morale, consumer mistrust, shaky investments. Not the best tack.
On the other hand, compartmentalizing has its own dangers. Most people aren't well equipped to successfully compartmentalize, because they don't draw clear lines between settings (home, work, etc.) or between reason and emotion. Instead, they suppress -- and suppressed emotions only remain that way for a limited period of time. Eventually, they surface -- often when you least want them to.
The solution is actually a mixture of both. Acknowledgment of the stress and its sources to those in your inner circle -- trusted family and friends -- provides a significant release. What's more, acknowledgment should be part of an ongoing discussion with a therapist or a business mentor. Leverage these relationships to understand your stress and how it can be minimized.
These conversations, however, won't help you when you're stuck in a meeting and feel stress ready to boil over. In these moments, compartmentalization can help. But before you attempt it single-handedly and confuse compartmentalizing with suppression, talk to your therapist about the best way to draw lines between emotion and reason -- especially when you're in the thick of a tense situation.
Here are nine key ways you can manage the stress of leadership:
- Acknowledge your stress to trusted friends and family -- not to employees or the public. This provides its own relief without suggesting instability.
- Schedule regular discussions with an occupational or personal therapist. Be sure to talk about your stress in very clear, direct terms and try to isolate the sources of stress.
- Find a business mentor and discuss your stress with them; ask for guidance on how to minimize it. Their personal experience will be an incredible asset to you as you navigate long-term, successful leadership.
- Learn proper compartmentalizing methods and use these in stressful work situations. (This article offers some good pointers.)
- Pick an activity that will help you expend stressful energy. Make this activity a priority and engage in it regularly -- even if your stress seems low.
- Don't let stress run your company. If you need to take breaks during your day to decompress, do so. Consider scheduling these breaks, regardless of your schedule, to ensure you can periodically clear your head.
- Keep your use of digital platforms (namely social media) to a minimum. If necessary, schedule blocks of time to review relevant channels for work. Also, make sure you have an assistant or colleague keep you accountable to your schedule.
- Make missteps and momentary failures learning experiences with clear actions tied to them. Don't simply ask, "What did I learn?" but "What did I learn and how can I apply that in my work moving forward?" This action will preclude the bouts of stress and depression that often follow from mistakes.
- Return to your vision and mission statements frequently. Spend time reminding yourself why you launched your company and what you hoped to accomplish. This will reenergize you for the challenging times ahead.
Central to all of this is acknowledgment of your own humanity. You are not superhuman; you need to recognize your struggles and address them without shame. As Nooyi puts it, "At the end of the day, don't forget that you're a person."