In a regular organisational structure, ultimate accountability should always flow upwards. Employees may well operate with a high degree of autonomy and managers might be trusted to make big decisions, but the responsibility for the results should always rest with the people in the boardroom and, in particular, with the chief executive.
This much is self-evident to every person in the organisation, as is the similar trajectory of workplace stress. No matter the pressure an individual might be under to deliver, their manager will almost certainly feel more acutely stressed, and their manager will assuredly feel they are under even greater strain. By the time this stress has pushed its way through the pipelines and passageways of the business and emerged into the CEO’s office, it might be powerful enough to quickly overcome the incumbent.
Stress, of course, comes with accountability, and most people in an organisation would readily accept this state of affairs as par for the course – believing that the greater power, higher prestige and bigger salary that the chief executive enjoys is offset by the highest level of accountability and the sizeable helping of stress that accompanies it.
This feeds into a general perception that, for the chief executive, stress is something that simply comes with the job. Leading a company is, by its nature, stressful, and so the leader needs to be an almost invulnerable superhuman – impervious to the stresses and strains that affect others. The crushing weight of impending deadlines; shareholder pressure; last-minute make-or-break decisions: all are expected to be subjugated with calm efficiency in the name of leadership.
There are two problems with this perception. The first is that leaders themselves might believe it, and so fear that feeling the pressure – and perhaps being seen to feel the pressure – only weakens them in the eyes of those they lead. The second is that it is obviously completely unreasonable to suggest that a leader should be impervious to feeling stress. They are human, they are often under considerable pressure, and they are required to perform at the top of their ability every day.
The fact is that a stress-ridden executive is no good to the company they lead, with many negative effects that can ricochet through an organisation and significantly damage its productivity. A leader who becomes overwhelmed by the pressure can be prone to rash decision-making and unpredictable behaviour. They might alienate their immediate reports and terrify their employees. Worse still, they can often end up reflecting their own stress on to others so that tension within a whole organisation quickly festers and builds.
No leader is ever going to rid themselves entirely of the pressures of being in charge – indeed, if they have, they will have already compromised their overall effectiveness as a leader. Strategies do need to be made; hard choices need to be settled, and such things come with a degree of pressure. But it is certainly within a leader’s capacity to mitigate some of the effects that this stress can have on their leadership, developing coping mechanisms which can alter their response to leadership strains.
They need to look at both their workload and the way they work, and ask whether there are elements of either that are unnecessarily stressful. Are they focused on the tasks they tackle? Do they get hung up on intricate and obscure details? Are there parts of their workload that can be comfortably delegated elsewhere? Doing so reduces the causes of stress while also helping a leader have more impact in the tasks they do take on.
It also provides a degree of perspective that can help a chief executive better understand the workings of their own organisation and their particular role within it. This can help shed any pretensions to superhuman status, and throw greater light on their strengths and on their weaknesses.
Even something as simple as allowing time for a real – if temporary – detachment from sources of stress can help a leader immensely. Allowing time to be simply human for a few moments can do wonders when you resubmerge into the inevitable pressures of leadership.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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