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How to Lead Without Gving in to Stress

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

How do CEOs stay calm? A few pointers would be great — would also like to hear about personal experiences.

Answer below by Jason M. Lemkin, partner at Storm Ventures and CEO of EchoSign.

First, you must fake it. You cannot let anyone see you look like you are losing control. Ever. Once [your employees] see that, they will lose faith.

Second, you need help. Ideally, two or three others on the management team who can really help carry the workload, so that you don’t have to worry about multiple key functional areas, at least not at an execution level. If you don’t have true help carrying the load, recruit someone as soon as possible.

Third, you need a break. In fact, you need lots of them. Personally, I run 26 miles a week, and take long walks to think. Coffee is helpful too, if you take it away from the office. But do something to take breaks.

Fourth, you need someone to confide in — at least one person you can really share the things with that make you [stressed out]. You need one great advisor, whoever they may be.

Fifth, once the business is real and sustaining, you need to take a real vacation. Not just a trip where you email four hours a day — a real vacation. Honestly, it may be four or five years until you can do this, but once you can, it will help a lot.

Answer below by Quora user Lee Ballentine, retired CEO.

Because there’s an hour’s worth of work to fill every minute of a CEO’s day, time management is often the best stress management. Here are a few ideas that helped keep me calm through challenging times.

  •  

    No one can do the top job without the support of the people they love.

    No one can do the top job without the support of the people they love. Do what you must to stay connected with your spouse or partner, children and others in your life. There’s no better reason to reschedule a meeting or change your travel plans than Back To School Night.

  • Look after your physical and mental health. You can’t take care of business unless you take care of yourself. This includes the simplest things like staying hydrated, occasional deep breathing and [taking time] to rest your eyes. Keep a treadmill or stationary bike in your office, if that’s what it takes — or lie down on the floor and set a timer for five minutes.
  • Be secure in your personal style. Every organization has an objective, and the CEO’s one and only job is to reach it. No one else’s opinion of your style really matters if you can reach the objective. So, dress the way you want, work the way you work best and make it happen.
  • Hire a great leadership team, and once you have confidence in them, let them spend an hour to arrive at decisions it would take you only a minute to make. That time ratio is still a bargain. There’s only one you.
  • Don’t sit in meetings for even five minutes longer than necessary. Find or invent the necessary strategies. You could hide the chairs and have all meetings standing up. You could let the team start without you and only come in at the end. You must make sure people understand that meetings are not working sessions to solve problems — that happens before or after.
  • Have a key phrase to remind you to keep your cool when the pressure is on and other people are agitated. 

    Not every task is critical and not every mistake is fatal.

    Not every task is critical and not every mistake is fatal. An acquaintance who was managing editor of a book publishing company had a beautifully handmade needlepoint reminder of this framed up on the wall of her office that said It’s Only a F*cking Book.

Answer below by Tom Chavez, CEO of Krux Digital inc.

The question, interpreted literally, is ill-posed. CEOs don’t always stay calm, nor should they.

The “old school” lauded CEOs who cooly appraised hard business scenarios and decisively moved their organizations to greatness while always maintaining perfect executive decorum; the “new school,” particularly in tech, relishes campfire stories about CEOs who throw chairs, cry and viciously dress down underlings. While the second extreme is unhealthy and thankfully rare, the idea of a CEO as a phlegmatic, cool-as-a-cucumber operator is equally wide off the mark.

There is no degree, no school, no association for CEOs. It’s a weird job, poorly understood and hardly studied.

There is no degree, no school, no association for CEOs. It’s a weird job, poorly understood and hardly studied. In my experience, one of its hardest aspects is marshaling other people’s energies and neurons to achieve large outcomes. Especially when your company is stumbling, the last thing you want to do is pretend that all is well. Your job as CEO, in my view, is to create maniacal focus around the things that need to get done. Hopefully you can do that through inspiration and persuasion, not by throwing chairs — but occasionally you’ll need to suspend calm and embrace urgency.

A more productive way to frame the question could be, “How do CEOs manage their own mental states so that they can get the job done without burning themselves and their people out?” I think Ben Horowitz does a great job of articulating the challenge and its solution here.

The most important thing, as he points out, is to simply not quit. Sounds inane, but it’s true. Maybe during a heated moment, you’ll say something in frustration you wish you hadn’t. Maybe you won’t be as calm at every moment as the steely, gray-haired CEOs in the movies. If your employees see your commitment to the cause and your absolute unwillingness to quit, then they’ll wonder briefly why they’re following you, look at your balance sheet, assess your assets and liabilities — and likely cut you a little slack.

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