As a clinician leader, you have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.  Whether it’s ensuring consistent referrals, providing excellent clinical care, or supporting your team, the demands on leaders are constant and require a nimble approach that is grounded in core principles so that the stressors you face don’t undo you. 

Leadership is tough stuff!  As a small business owner, I find there are multiple tasks, opportunities, and challenges always vying for my attention.  It’s easy to get reactive and distracted, and at the end of the day feel as though I’ve made very little progress on my most important goals.

As clinicians, we know stress is a factor that impacts our clients, but with this post I want to jump into the impact of stress on your leadership as a clinician leader.

The Push to Simplify

When faced with stress, the mind and body work together to simplify processes.  Think in terms of fight and flight.  When facing a ferocious animal, the mind and body must act quickly.  There are two choices:  Stay and fight or turn and run.  For survival in these acute stress situations, simplifying choices improves our odds of living to tell the tale of our bear run-in.

Of course, most of us don’t deal with these kinds of acute stress situations on a daily basis (thank goodness!), but we do deal with the chronic stressors of our modern world: deadlines, flooded email in-boxes, rush-hour traffic, and a 24-hour news cycle.  Our mind and body are geared for survival, and can’t always fully distinguish the difference between the stress of a wild animal vs. the stress of an upcoming deadline.  The net effect is that we tend to marinate in a chronic stress that our mind and body interpret as acute.  This experience leads us to simplify processes as if we were in fight or flight mode.

Unfortunately, this sort of simplification isn’t necessarily the best way to manage the typical stresses of our daily lives.  While, in general, there are many benefits of simplification, when it comes to leaders coping with stress, there are some costs of simplification.

Costs of Simplification

When coping with stress, we tend to narrow our focus as a way of managing overwhelm.  While this can be helpful in the short-term, if used as a primary way of coping, narrowed focus can cause leaders to lose perspective of vision and overarching goals.  This kind of shift in course can be confusing to those we lead, and so if you are mindfully narrowing focus given the demands of a specific situation, be sure to communicate about this decision to your team members.  This allows them to also shift expectations and support the decision.

When leaders simplify as a reaction to stress, there is also the risk of failing to balance immediate needs with overall goals.  It is very easy to lose sight of the big picture when we feel pummeled by never-ending demands.  It’s easy to sacrifice what’s important for what is merely urgent.  When faced with an urgent request, step back and ask yourself if the request is indeed urgent, but also if it is important.

In these moments I have found it helpful to remember that I get to decide if something is urgent, not the individual making the request of me.  When others want us to do something, it’s in their best interest to request necessity—for us to feel it is urgent (as it may well be urgent to them)—but it may not in fact be an urgent situation.

You must also decide if the request is important.  Does it fit with your visions, goals, and capabilities?  One of my favorite quotes on this topic is by Jeff Walker: “Every yes must be defended by a thousand no’s.”  How true this is!  As you continue to lead, you will have many more opportunities than you will be able to say yes to, and yet if you try to say yes to everything you will find you have nothing left to give to your biggest goals.

Clarity of purpose is essential in these moments.  What is your vision?  What are your monthly, quarterly, and yearly goals?  What are the costs of not attending to this situation right now? As clinician leaders, we must constantly weigh the immediate needs with our overall goals or we run the risk of undermining our own success.

As we manage stress, our tendency is to adopt more concrete approaches.  This often results in emotional reactivity, cognitive rigidity, and physical fatigue.  Of course, these states make it more difficult to lead effectively, make wise decisions, and support our teams.  Identify your tale-tell signs of reactivity, rigidity, and fatigue.  How will you know when you’re moving to more extreme responses? When you notice your signs, be willing to proactively address the concerns.

For instance, when it comes to emotional reactivity I have found it helpful to delay my response.  I’ll ask for more time, I’ll wait to return a call, or I’ll flag an email for follow up after I’ve had a chance to ground myself. Often this means I need to get curious about my emotional state.  What am I feeling?  What was it that triggered strong emotions?  What is the heart of the concern?  Is this really a valid concern or do I just not like the situation?

Slowing down the process and doing my own work around emotional reactivity has saved me the grief that comes from reacting hastily. Once I’m clear on the situation, then I’m in a better position to decide how (or if) to respond.  Often there may be nothing to do but tolerate the discomfort. Other times, you may be able to guide a conversation, or offer a suggestion that moves the issue forward.

Net Effect of Stress on Leadership

While most of us are intimately familiar with the impact of stress on individual functioning, it’s also valuable to recognize how stress impacts leadership.  Stress overwhelms.  Our mind and body simplify in response. These small shifts in response gradually become more rigid, reactive, and extreme if there is not a strong commitment to self-awareness and critical feedback.  The net effect is that over time, these extreme positions become the new leadership style, which can negatively impact team functioning and hamper our progress on important business goals.

As we learned in our clinical training, clinicians committed to personal development, self-awareness, and critical feedback become the most astute therapists.  This is also true when it comes to leading a team and building a business.  While there is no way to completely avoid the stresses of leadership, clinicians who cultivate intentional action and resist the shift to more extreme positions can ensure they not only survive, but also thrive through the challenges of clinical leadership.