How to Lead Well When You're Stressed Out

(Photo by AJ Garcia on Unsplash)

David Mayfield and Justin Hale demonstrated in a Harvard Business Review article that when leaders break down during pressure, so do their followers.

The article posted Dec. 17, 2018, at hbr.org profiles a manager who took pride in creating a fun and uplifting environment where he viewed his role as supporting people and developing talent. But when his team was asked, the majority of team members saw him as a "jerk." When the heat was on, he would often lose his temper and say things he would later regret. Everyone agreed that 95 percent of the time, he supported people and developed talent. But his team's opinion of their leader was formed at times when he was especially "jerky," which was during times of high pressure.

The problem of leaders' demeanor under pressure is fairly widespread. In the authors' survey of 1,300 people, they found that "when under pressure:

53 percent of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.

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45 percent are more upset and emotional than calm and in control.

45 percent ignore or reject rather than listen or seek to understand.

43 percent are more angry and heated than cool and collected.

37 percent avoid or sidestep rather than be direct and unambiguous.

30 percent are more devious and deceitful than candid and honest."

The article documented that a leader's poor dialogue at stressful times is more likely to result in employees who are frustrated and angry, more likely to complain, more likely to shut down and stop participating, less likely to go beyond their responsibilities and more likely to consider leaving. A leader's demeanor during stress will, to a large extent, determine his followers' attitude toward his leadership and, in turn, their effectiveness.

The Scriptures also document that a leader's actions during times of pressure and stress will long be remembered by followers. Stress was high. Judas had just betrayed Jesus. The Jewish leaders had arrested Jesus, and He stood before the Sanhedrin. Peter's adrenalin was high. He had struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear, but to no avail. Peter's love for the Master still compelled him to follow.

Here he was, trying to keep warm by a fire in the courtyard of the high priest, and a servant girl accused him of being with Jesus. What would Peter choose to do? Fear gripped him. He denied he followed Jesus by saying, "Woman, I do not know Him" (Luke 22:57b). Accused once more, Peter again denied being with the Lord. The third time, his Galilean accent betrayed him. But fear tightened its grip each time. Although cold, Peter was sweating. He denied knowing the Lord a third time. Jesus looked at Peter, who then remembered the prophecy. A rooster crowed, and Peter went out and wept.

"Peter said, 'Man, I do not know what you are saying.' Immediately, while he was yet speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, 'Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.'And Peter went outside and wept bitterly" (Luke 22:60-62).

But Peter went on to become an accomplished leader in the early church, known as the apostle to the Jews. The Lord used Peter in amazing ways. People used to carry the sick into the streets and lay them on cots and pallets so that his shadow might fall on them (Acts 5:15). People from cities outside Jerusalem would bring the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed (Acts 5:16).

Historical sources tell us Peter was eventually crucified after a life of valiant service. Because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as His Lord, this disciple asked to be crucified upside down.

Even believers tend to overemphasize and remember how leaders acted under pressure. Ask a Christian today what comes to mind when he thinks of Peter, and it's likely he would mention that Peter denied the Lord three times.

The apostle Thomas, after a lifetime of service, was martyred in India by being pierced by a lance. But Thomas has forever acquired the nickname "Doubting Thomas" because he wouldn't believe the Lord had risen without proof (John 20:24-25).

The secret to being bold, wise, loving, fearless and on mission during times of pressure and stress is to have an ongoing, dynamic, personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. After Pentecost, with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Scripture records that none of the apostles had a problem handling life's pressure points in a manner that glorified the Lord.

"But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Listen to Sylvia Rogers, author of Healing Words, explain how to deal with stress at work in the podcast below.

James R. Russell is a professor of economics at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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