Sustainable leadership: how to prevent toxic stress?

How to remove toxic stress from Leaders’ work life, whilst simultaneously create sustainable leadership with better working environment ?

While the threats of products‘ competitiveness and talents’ attractiveness are at stake for many international companies, they expect their leaders to be efficient and effective managers. Leaders need to succeed both in getting results and mobilize teams for the best performance. When a leader shows high stress it has negative effects on his environment, on his decision-making abilities and more broadly on his business. 

Sustainable leadership and self-management will provide better results in a viable way for their team and for themselves. Taking care of oneself and reconnecting with the inner “drive” is a key factor of success for leaders. How does your work-life balance look like? Are you feeling under pressure? Do you think your environment is too demanding for the means you have?

Here is an executive story that may talk about you… Robert has been heading a fast growing company for the past 18 months. All the key performance indicators are positive, yet he has trouble sleeping. He feels increasingly anguished when going to the office…


“18 months ago, I became Chief Executive Officer of this company after a major LBO operation. I was joined by my top managers, as well as an investment fund that fully trusts me.

For the past two months, I have been waking up at night with a tremendous feeling of anguish. I feel distressed the moment I arrive at the office. Meetings with my team have become more and more painful. Honestly,  I don’t see a way out of this situation. I feel increasingly stressed in spite of the excellent first year results and the very positive prospects of the last six months. What is happening to me? I am afraid of failing, of disappointing my managers and my associates who have put their trust in me. Suddenly, I realize that I am putting a lot of pressure on myself in order to satisfy my colleagues’ expectations. I must assume responsibility for their sake.

Yet, what can I do to develop a more sustainable leadership ? How can I avoid the professional burnout that looms large unless I change my way of working?…”

Challenges and difficulties

The key issue for Robert is his complete dedication to his company. The pressure he puts on himself to over succeed in his mission is toxic. He has to learn how to develop a sustainable leadership for him and for his company…

Since Robert has become the shareholder and leader of this company, this project is HIS project, HIS life… Should he fail, he would consider this failure as a personal drama.  The anguish that this possibility entails alters the quality of his sleep, regardless of the fact that for the time being facts prove that he is heading for success.

The assessment of the situation which he makes with his coach is the following:

  • His perception of subjective reality is disconnected from the objective situation
  • He has developed an exacting perfectionism to answer to his desire to succeed
  • His fear of failure pushes him to control everything and sometimes to do everything himself seldom delegating to others.

What is more, Robert is perfectly aware of the fact that the pressure he puts on himself is toxic. It leads him to overdo it and to become overloaded. He admits that he meddles in everything, that he wants to be informed of everything.  At the end, he wants his behavior to be irreproachable.

Alert on all fronts, his brain is in a state of permanent activity. He is overburdened by information. His perfectionism leads him to work in a compulsive fashion without enjoying what he is doing. He is aware of the fact that he is not taking care of himself! The worst is that he has stopped working out and neglects his family and friends…As a result, his anxiety is growing further. A vicious circle that will lead to a total burnout…

Coaching’s added value

Coaching is a key lever to develop sustainable leadership ! Coaching provides a safe space for stopping the negative spiral. A coaching process will help in finding a positive way out, as in Robert’s situation:

  1. Paying attention to risk factors in order to anticipate and take preventive measures:

  • Decoding early warning signs of the burnout syndrome
  • Asking for professional counselling
  • Taking rapid action with at least three measures
  1. Getting better organised and delegating more:

    this may mean giving up the idea of controlling everything, abandoning some expectations including perfectionism. An improved time organization will contribute to reducing stress, and delegating to others will alleviate the mental workload and the involvement in tasks with a weak added value.  One may perhaps have to learn to take a breather and change habits, form co-workers and/or find new resources.

Coaching’s work and impact: Robert realizes that he has put a lot of pressure on himself, particularly where his heavy daily commute is concerned. He could easily use the support office which is close to his house. Yet he makes a point of going every day to the factory, which means an 80 kilometers drive.  This would be his first simple and harmless step, once he accepts the idea that he can handle issues even if he is not on the spot.

He therefore decides to limit his presence on the site to three days and he makes key organizational changes. The meeting of his executive committee will take place in Paris on Mondays, while on Friday he resorts to remote management to deal with other weekly issues.

He then delegates the power of signature to his financial manager and his sales manager, a decision he had pointlessly postponed for several months in spite of his co-workers’ legitimate requests…

With the help of his two assistants he plans the meetings with the dealers’ network, where his presence is absolutely essential and delegates the responsibility for the other meetings.

He discusses and takes his third decision with the shareholders’ agreement. Given the two digit growth of the company, they agree to hire an operations manager who will be responsible for day-to-day management. In the meanwhile he will devote himself to strategy and medium-term development including foreign acquisitions, as planned in the initial program.

  1. Recharging batteries and resting:

    this is sometimes a crucial step after spending so many years neglecting ourselves. Making sure that we get enough sleep, taking care of our health, having a healthy diet, taking up a physical activity, are the keys to reducing stress and fatigue. It is important to arrange for a break from time to time, for moments devoted to relaxation in order to restore our health and rest.  They will of course have to be adapted to different personalities and to the context (they may vary from disconnecting for a few moments, to taking up activities outside the workplace, going on vacation or taking some time to rest, or even stop working for longer periods or, in some cases, resorting to sleep therapy).

Coaching’s work and impact : Robert found the second course of action far more difficult to adopt.  Being used to setting and attaining demanding goals, to working tirelessly, to taking responsibility for everything including the organization of mountain hikes with his friends during vacation, he had never felt the need for restful moments. Putting all his energy in his striving after perfection had brought him utter satisfaction, and had generated the energy necessary to face new challenges…until now.

Having sought medical attention when the first symptoms appeared, Robert had to admit that his way of being, and not only of doing, had to change. This was an essential step in his work on himself and triggered his awareness of the absolute need for rest and for taking care of his health.  Subsequently, going back to practicing a sport and other healing activities, such as listening to music or opera, enabled him to reconnect to himself and to restore his physical and mental energy.

  1. Taking care of ourselves and reconnecting with our inner “drive”: the secret for a sustainable leadership! 

    “Becoming again intimate with ourselves, exploring our deep sources of motivation,” enable us to find a sustainable balance, even though it may take some time.

Coaching’s work and impact : Robert had reached the point where he doubted everything including the deep love for his work…The last step of his coaching support concerned searching for what really mattered to him, in terms of values and ambition, reconnecting with all that was meaningful in his life. That enabled him to confirm the motivation behind this project. He decided to devote a great deal of his time particularly to the issues of societal commitment and sustainable development. The newly hired Operations Manager will be able to take over the daily management. At the end of the coaching, Robert was very proud of having truly developed a sustainable leadership! This has many positive impacts on himself and his environment, removing most of the toxic stress and increasing the work life quality.

Coach’s recommendations to develop sustainable leadership

The current situation finds yourself with huge responsibilities. Your increasing feeling is that you have to climb the Everest without sufficient resources. You see yourself spending nights thinking of the workload with anxiety… or seeing yourself not being able to enjoy joyful moments with your family and friends. Just stop for a moment and scan your own situation and the way you behave:

  • Do you permanently seek new challenges?
  • Are you very demanding towards yourself and others?
  • Do you frequently feel you have a mission to accomplish?
  • Is there particular pressure in your current environment?
  • Do you fear above anything else a failure of any kind?

In our next newsletter you will find some tips to develop a sustainable leadership! You will find with a a self-assessment to diagnose potential risk of professional burnout. Keep in touch! Contact us or visit our website…

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