March 21, 2016

No one ever said that being a leader is easy. But, mainstream media doesn’t always show how hard it is on the mind, body, and spirit either. This was the topic of discussion at a SXSW session hosted by Seth Bannon, co-founder of Amicus, and Ela Madej, Partner of Fifty Years.

Inspired by Elon Musk’s famous quote, “Entrepreneurship is like eating glass and looking into the abyss,” the panel focused heavily on the stress of the entrepreneur—the combination of isolation and constant stress. But every leadership role is wrought with stressful situations, so the advice by Banning and Madej is helpful for many.

Leading is not for the faint of heart

Leadership is hard. And it’s OK to admit that. Being emotionally invested in your team’s success is hard. Caring is hard. Giving up time with friends and family to pursue your passion is hard. But the worst thing to do is keep these feelings bottled up.

Leadership can be isolating and leaders often feel unable to communicate their worry, doubt, loneliness, or vulnerability. They don't know how to survive stress and actually turn it into fuel for better leadership. This applies not just to the founder of a startup, but also to the volunteer Boy Scout leader, the head of a major project committee, or the supervisor of a contact center team. In all of these leadership situations, you have to do a lot of things you don't like—

Leadership can be isolating and leaders often feel unable to communicate their worry, doubt, loneliness, or vulnerability. They don't know how to survive stress and actually turn it into fuel for better leadership.

At this point, you might wonder, like I did, “Do I really want to eat glass? Maybe glass is not for me.” And that’s OK. Banning and Madej said more than once that taking on a huge life altering mission is not for everyone. One way to tell if you’re meant for this hard journey is to check the

  1. Purpose: A sense of higher meaning. Ask yourself, “Why is what I’m doing important?” If there is a long pause, you might want to explore that more before throwing your life into this pursuit.

  2. Passion: A drive that will keep you moving. Success takes huge time and energy investments. There will be many times when giving up is appealing. Passion will help you sustain the energy and outlook you need to reach your goals.

  3. Perspective: It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Madej believes in this more than anything. During a particularly stressful funding round, her team was at the brink of burning out. So, she canceled the round and gave them more time. It was a risky move and it paid off.

Ready to eat glass? Stay balanced.

When you have your “3 Ps” in place and you’re ready to embark on a leadership path, the next step is to stay balanced. Banning and Madej believe that the greatest enemy to a balanced emotional and physical life is cortisol. Otherwise known as “the stress hormone,” this chemical is released when we are in danger. It also shows up during non-life threatening stressful events, like deadlines and presentations. Cortisol is destructive when your body and mind are subjected to high levels over an extended length of time—it can impair digestion, slow down the healing process, and weaken your immune system. Luckily for us, cortisol can be minimized and cleared out of the body in a few simple ways.

  1. Sleeping: Science shows that we are less productive, more anxious, and prone to depression when sleep deprived. A lack of sleep also increases cortisol levels. Some leaders are finally eschewing the practice of forgoing sleep. Arianna Huffington, for example, claims that a ‘Sleep Revolution’ could help us better solve the world’s problems.

  2. Dancing: Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight mechanism in your brain. It prepares your body to mobilize. According to studies, you need to provide a physical release or the cortisol will build up and begin damaging your body. But you don’t need to run a marathon or fight off an assailant to release the hormone.

  3. Massages: Swedish massage, or any moderate pressure massage, reduces the negative effects of cortisol on the body. The massage lowers blood pressure and reduces the stress chemical. Plus, it’s bliss. If you can’t get to a masseuse, try a self-massage.

  4. Vacation: This is the most obvious solution and the one that people do the least. Time is especially tight when starting a company or taking on a new leadership role. If you can’t find time to get away, studies show that the act of planning and anticipating vacation can have almost the same joyful effect as being on one.

  5. Meditation: Taking 10 minutes for deep, controlled breathing can be the simplest and most effective way to lower cortisol levels in your body. Apps like HeadSpace make it easy for meditation to be part of your daily life.

As two seasoned entrepreneurs, Bannon and Madej are familiar with the harsh toll of leadership. But they’ve also seen the positive effects of minimizing cortisol and staying focused in their high-risk, high-stress, and yes, successful careers. Madej repeatedly said, “It’s about listening to yourself and finding balance.”

Stress is the mind killer. Let me know if any of these tips help you combat stress and be a better leader.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.