Let’s talk about fear, anxiety and stress. To be an effective leader, we must learn to deal with each. They are part of the business battlefield when leading others as well as for personal excellence. How do we do this?

The first step for my students is to change their mindset about fear, anxiety and stress (FAS). If you look up definitions for each, you will see they are littered with negative words like unease, unpleasantness, agitation, anger and nervousness. We are programmed, from an early age, to avoid FAS at all costs.

The headlines bombard us with messages that (di)stress is killing us. Although there is some truth to that, it is a simplistic view. Some (eu)stress is actually beneficial, making us mentally stronger, and should be sought out.

As a thought experiment, I often ask my students and clients to imagine a world free of FAS? The ironic result is they usually understand that a life without FAS would be dull, uninspiring and devoid of challenge.

The research supports what we intuitively know. We are hardwired to strive for something worthy, for a sense of purpose. A life of learning, improvement, failure, success, and challenges. This is exactly what our brains crave. In the absence of such things we oftentimes become agitated and feel unfulfilled. And we don’t understand why. Our brains are screaming at us to pay attention, and we are deaf to its pleas.

Once we learn to embrace FAS as worthy and necessary, we are well on our way to being the kind of leaders that excel under pressure. Military special forces such as the U.S. Navy SEAL’s often coach their teams on the concept that “calm is contagious” and so is panic. This is often called emotional contagion in psychology literature. Our attitude, good or bad, directly affects those who are in close proximity to us.

When a crisis strikes, it is imperative that our leaders model a calm demeanor so that our followers do the same. To do this, we first need tools to regulate our emotion.

Neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner, of Columbia University, states there are five strategies we can deploy:

1)   Situation Selection – by practicing good self-awareness, we can learn to understand how and why we generate emotions. Once understood, we can then devise strategies to avoid them. For example, if I have an emotional urge to eat donuts, I could adopt a strategy to not buy them and keep them in the house.

2)   Situation Modification – if you can’t avoid it, then you can try to change it in some way to promote more positive emotions. For example, if you have a presentation to give, you can rehearse, familiarize with the venue and gain an understanding of who the audience is to reduce negative emotions. This is all about preparation.

3)   Change Your Focus – every leader experiences FAS, even the ones that appear calm. The difference between those who perform well, and those who do not is what they focus their attention on. Calm leaders maintain a task focus, and push FAS to the side. Nervous leaders focus on the FAS, and push the task to the side. In short, stay task focused to excel.

4)   Reappraisal – we can cognitively change the way we interpret events. Reframing or reinterpreting events is the most common form of reappraisal. A second way is acceptance. This can be cultivate by mindfulness meditation, to allow our emotions to come and go without judgement or attachment. The third way is cognitive distancing. We take a helicopter view, and remove ourselves from the situation. If we were to objectively look down upon our situation, how would it look? This helps us to distance ourselves from the emotion.

5)   Response Modulation – this involved suppressing our emotions. Although there are situations when this is the best course of action for leaders, there are pitfalls. First, find an outlet for your emotion. We must discharge this emotions is some fashion. I encourage a conversation with a coach, therapist, mentor or friend. In the absence of that, journaling can also be effective.

These are some of the tactics I teach aspiring leaders in the Engineering Management program at the University of Colorado, Boulder as well as my clients. If you want to perform well under pressure, I encourage you to practice these skills to tap into your personal excellence and model the way for your team.

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