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"Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions." – (Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership, Harvard Business School Press, 2005)
Leadership requires the exercise of influence or power. It requires having an impact on others to make things happen. It involves responsibility for the organization. Leaders are under continual scrutiny and evaluation. All these things increase the feels of pressure and stress.
For people who head organizations, choices are rarely simple and clear. Communications and decision making are incredibly complex. Worse, leaders are often called upon to get results and lead people over whom they have little authority.
There is no doubt that it is lonely at the top. Affiliation with others is known to relieve stress, yet leaders are selected for their high need for power and achievement. Under pressure, a leader will work harder rather than reach out to others.
Furthermore, the higher one is in position, the less authentic the feedback. Leaders are prone to CEO disease, where the feedback going upwards is distorted or diluted.
Sources of Leadership Power Stress
Here are a few sources of stress that are unique to people in leadership positions. Leaders experience increased stress because they:
– Must make important decisions with conflicting and complex data
– Must influence others over whom they have little authority
– Have a high need for power
– Are driven by power and achievement over affiliation with others
– Must continually get results no matter what
– Lack realistic and authentic feedback from others
– Constantly fight fires, solve problems and crises
– Must take responsibility even for uncontrollable events
– Are more visible to stakeholders, the public and customers
– Are subject to unrelenting evaluation from peers, boards, and competitors
– Must exercise constant self-control
– Must place the good of the organization above personal impulses and needs
– They work for organizations that encourage self-sacrifice and long hours
– They work for organizations that undervalue renewal, recuperation, and relaxation
Such high levels of stress have deleterious effects on the immune system, leading to physiological states that cause diseases. Worse, power stress leads to destructive psychological states.
A leader may withdraw unto him or herself in an effort to protect from stress. Conversely, he or she may strike out at others in inconsistent ways, with inappropriate expressions of anger or emotions. The leader may double up his or her efforts to achieve results, and in the process, miss important information from people. This further alienates people, who may begin to perceive the leader as arrogant and no longer receptive. There is no doubt there is a substantial cost incurred as a result of leadership power stress.
Power stress causes a leader to go from resonance to dissonance. Once this happens, there is a lack of trust, and consequently, a lessening of influence over the troops. Results falter, and the leader becomes ineffective in a downward spiral to burnout.
The Cycle of Sacrifice and Renewal
The problem is not simply power stress. It has always been a part of leadership reality. The problem is too little recovery time. There is no half-time on the field. While the pressure and stresses will not relent, there must also be greater attention to recuperation on both a personal and organizational level.
Leaders sacrifice themselves continuously on the job. Some leaders have learned skills that deliberately and consciously step out of the destructive patterns to renew themselves – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Leaders who manage the cycle of sacrifice, stress, and renewal are mindful of what it takes to turn situations around. They are able to motivate themselves and others by being optimistic, focusing on values, and connecting with others.
They can’t do that without mastering stress and renewal. This involves paying attention to mind, body, heart and spirit. These effective leaders know that without attending to themselves first, they won’t have the energy to maintain resonance, to manage other people.
This is part 1 of a 2 part article on Leadership Power Stress by author Patsi Krakoff. In part 2 we examine the cures for relieving power stress.

This Business article was written by Patsi Krakoff, Psy. D. on 2/2/2006

Patsi Krakoff, Psy. D. writes articles for business and executive coaches and consultants. She provides articles on leadership and executive development for sale, and formatted into customized newsletters. Get Patsi’s Secrets of Successful Ezines 7-Step Mini-Course to learn what you need to know to publish a successful ezine.