Plato tells us that one of Socrates’ central maxims was, “Know thyself.” This is wise for all people, but it is absolutely essential for leaders. Let’s take one particular challenge leaders face to help us see why this is true.
Most people are different under stress than they are when at peace. I think this is common knowledge. Yet the leader should not be surprised by who he or she is under stress. Leaders should know who they are in their stressed state and work to make themselves effective in that state.
This is vital because all of us have default responses to stress. Often these responses are destructive.
I’ve known leaders whose automatic response to stress is to suddenly be disabled by tiredness—real or imagined. Just like a man taking refuge from his problems in a bottle of whiskey, this person almost completely shuts down. They can’t do their job or carry the extra load that seasons of stress often require because they are tired. They make excuses. They beg off of work. They let you know in a thousand ways that they aren’t fully functional. Now, this may be a legitimate biological response to stress. I don’t know for sure. Yet it is a response you want to know of yourself and others before the day of battle begins.
Then there are those who answer stress with doubts about the mission. They start raising questions about the decisions that led to the moment. “If we hadn’t challenged that competitor in the market,” they say to all who will listen, “we wouldn’t have such stress.” “We never should have built this building in the first place.” “Jeff always pushes too hard. It’s just ego.” You know the kind of thing. It is undermining. It leads to disillusionment. It weakens the team. Or it weakens you if this is the inner dialogue going on in your soul.
The problem with this last response to stress is that it sees hardship as evil. If it is hard, if it is challenging, it is bad. Only a peaceful, unstressed state should prevail, these folks think. Clearly, they aren’t warriors and won’t battle at your side. And if this is what is circulating in your mind and heart as you lead, you will be indecisive, regretful, and weak.
I could name dozens of other responses, but let’s get to the point. Who are you under stress? Do you cower from battle? Are you terrorized by the opinions of others? Are you beset with self-doubts? Do you start questioning all the decisions that brought you to the present moment? Do you get tired? Do you get drunk? Do you blame? Do you pick small fights as a distraction from the main fight?
Take stock. Be honest. Ask others who know you. In short, know thy stressed self. And make changes. Confront the debilitating dysfunctions of your soul. Build teams that reinforce you in times of stress. I even urge leaders to write down lists of commitments that they will live out in times of stress. It helps you remember who you truly are when the stressful season tries to make you forget.
Okay, you see the main objective—and the main threat. You are a good enough leader to fix this and get the help you need so you are ready for battle in the day of stress.