True team effectiveness boils down to one thing: courage. If leaders lack the bravery to make tough decisions and stick with them, their teams will never be able to achieve their potential. This article will share practical ways to manage stress so that you can be braver and increase your team's effectiveness. It's not as hard as it sounds, but it's not easy either. Yet as you'll discover, team effectiveness needs courage the way a ship needs a captain – and if you aren't able to effectively manage stress, you're bound to capsize.

Team effectiveness lessons from a Royal Marine commando sniper

To channel courage as a leader and make the hard calls that drive your team forward, you need to be able to function well in adverse circumstances. Leadership isn't a skill we can rely on just in fair weather. No matter how well we lead in times of ease, life will always catch us by surprise at times. It's in those moments, when the chips are down, that character is revealed and leaders are sorted from followers.

If anyone knows about managing well in adversity, it's ex-Royal Marine commando sniper Aldo Kane. Aldo is many things: explorer, world record holder, Royal Geographic Society Fellow, author, producer, TV presenter, and safety provider on set at the world’s most dangerous, extreme and remote locations. Somehow, he found time to talk with Symbia MD Jodie Rogers on The Hidden Edge of Team Performance podcast, where he shared his insights into facing hostile situations with cheerfulness and finding the courage to make difficult decisions as a leader.

Aldo's training at age 16 as a Royal Marine Commando, where he became one of the youngest elite snipers in the UK armed forces, imbued him with a set of principles for coping with hardship that he has relied on as a leader throughout his career. What are they? No less than the four elements of Commando Spirit; Courage, Determination, Unselfishness, and Cheerfulness in the Face of Adversity. These weren't just slogans that he and his fellow recruits learned by rote, but principles that have served him and those he protects on set in the years since. All four principles are designed to do one thing: help manage stress.

Stress management: the essential leadership skill?

Aldo makes it clear: you can't live the courage of your convictions without learning how to manage stress. Stress is not the enemy. It can be a great motivator. It's also how we learn what we're made of as leaders. Seen that way, stress is a source of strength. It gives us the courage to build lasting team effectiveness by choosing our battle and staying focused on it until it's won.

You don't have to be a commando sniper to learn to see stress as a survival instinct that pushes us beyond our perceived limits. You just need perspective and practice as a leader. You can learn from stress. To do so, you'll need to look hard at the sources of your stress and determine whether it's in your power to influence or control it (hint: often it will be out of your control).

Knowing what you can and can't control

So where does stress come from, exactly? There is more than one answer to that question, but suffice it to say that your massive workload, epic commute time, or toxic boss aren't on the list. Stress isn't any one of those things. Rather, it's what happens when the demands of a situation exceed our perceived ability to control them.

As a human being and leader, then, you should aim not to get rid of stress, but to develop fruitful, healthy ways of managing it. Of course, to manage something, you need to know what it is first, right?

Here's an exercise that will show you just that: get a pen or pencil and paper and jot down all the sources of stress that you are dealing with. Don't overthink this - just go with what initially comes to mind. If it makes you feel anxious, it's a candidate for the list.

We often have leaders do this exercise in our webinars and workshops. We get a lot of answers like this:

  • Unexpected obstacles
  • Hard-to.please bosses
  • Tight deadlines
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Goals that keep changing
  • Lack of resources
  • Personal problems
  • Lack of focus
  • Pressure to always execute

Whatever your answers, know and accept this: stress is part of life. As the above list shows, there's virtually no chance that you'll ever be 'stress-free.'

Yet by training yourself to understand how stress works and how you react to it, you can improve at managing its mental and physical impact on you.

By taking control and owning your response to stress, you take your rightful place at the helm. You become captain – elite commando – of your body and life, one decision at a time. Gradually, you'll migrate to a more confident, calm state of mind in which think faster, problem-solve better, and make fewer slip-ups.

Leadership is also about what you don't do

For leaders, accepting that some things are outside of their control can be especially challenging. After all, aren't we told over and over that leaders must be 'strong'? And when crisis strikes, don't we look to leaders for direction?

We are, and we do. However, even if we set aside whether those assumptions and values are healthy, we must admit that leadership is as much about what we don't do as about what we do. By letting go and acknowledging when we can't control an outcome, we're not only being honest with ourselves and our teams – we're also leading more effectively. Decision-making gets no braver than that.

Still, 'owning up' to what we can't control can be grueling. When the going gets tough, it helps to cultivate a Stoic or 'Zen' mindset. Mindfulness and meditation practices are excellent training for this. They point us to the realisation that allowing that which we have no influence or control over to negatively impact our stress levels and overall wellbeing is irrational. Once we know that, it's easier to notice and change our self-harming behaviour.

Is your amygdala under siege?

Want to feel less stressed and more focussed in your leadership role? You can start by cutting unnecessary distractions from your life. But wait – have we mentioned that many of these are in your mind?

That's right: whenever you feel fear, insecurity, doubt, worry or anxiety, a pathway opens  between your amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

This pathway's purpose: to enable you to survive adversity. It's your internal alarm system. But while it's designed to protect you, it's often falsely triggered. When that happens, fear, panic and anxiety course through you. That, in turn, causes stress.

Unfortunately, you can't just reason this alarm system out of existence when it goes off. That's because the switch to 'turn off' your prefrontal cortex is disabled. This is called the 'amygdala hijack'.

The good news: you can condition your mind through practice to better manage this situation.

How to 'hijack' back your amygdala

To achieve better team effectiveness by learning to manage stress, you'll need to equip yourself to fight a common enemy of leaders: the 'amygdala hijack'. That means 'working out' your mind to reclaim your pre-frontal cortex when stress sends it into fight-or-flight mode. Here are 4 essential techniques:

  • Meditate: Meditation physically changes your amygdala's structure. There's no more proven tool to boost your mental fitness.
  • Count from 1–10: Counting activates your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that's responsible for logic. So exercising it is only logical!
  • Count and breathe: Breathing deeply and mindfully engages the parasympathetic nervous system. Your nerves will have more sympathy for you – meaning that you'll feel calmer and more focussed.
  • Silent Scream: This doesn't mean quietly contemplating Edvard Munch's famous painting. It's a method for shedding excess adrenaline when you're upset. Clench your whole body, bend your knees, flex all of your muscles and 'scream' silently. When you do it right, you'll tremble. Trust us: it's worth it.

Our emotions are our biggest internal distractions. When we are in a heightened emotional state, we are stressed – and that destroys our focus. Doing these exercises when you experience stress will strengthen your neural pathways to make you more resilient. And the better you can cope with adversity, the braver you will be in your decision-making. This is how you dial your team effectiveness up to 11.

Strike the right balance

As we've seem, effective team leadership means living your convictions courageously – and to do that, you have to learn to manage stress well.

This won't happen over night. In fact, even the best leaders never become 'perfect' at it. It's a balancing act that you must perform every day.

To recap: stress happens. Leaders, like everyone else, are only human, so don't aim to eliminate stress. Not only is that impossible – it also ignores the 'good stress' that motivates us and spurs growth and leadership development. Rather, strive to manage your relationship with stress in a healthy, balanced way.

How can you start? By directing your attention away from what you cannot control and towards what you can control. Do that, and stress will go from being harmful and negative to being helpful and (mostly) positive. When in doubt, channel your inner Aldo Kane!

Good luck. We believe in you.

Want to learn more about developing leadership and team effectiveness to navigate a complex, uncertain marketplace cultivating the mindsets and skills you need to succeed in a rapidly-changing future?

Then you'll be interested in The EDGE, a done-for-you learning journey that drives behaviour change, improves performance and enhances impact. The EDGE gives you access to a roster of A-list trainers – including the aforementioned Aldo Kane. Learn all about it and view the full programme for The EDGE here.

We also recommend Aldo Kane's book Lessons From the Edge: Inspirational Tales of Surviving, Thriving and Extreme Adventure.

Want to learn more about how Symbia’s approach to uncovering individual and team purpose? Email us at team@symbiapartners.com

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