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Nov 20

Six Leadership Strategies for Coping with Pressure

By Trish Neiworth

From dealing with organizational complexities to meeting expectations of high performance and lightning-speed change, today’s leader must deal with pressure on a daily basis. Public health leaders often carry an even greater burden than those in other professions since the decisions they make can impact the lives of the populations they serve.

As a leader, how do you cope with the never-ending demands? Below are six tips from those who’ve been there—leaders in business, public health, education, and government who have learned to deal with the pressure.

  1. Manage Yourself. Late motivational speaker and international author Zig Ziglar’s advice includes managing your own life. “You must manage yourself before you can lead someone else,” he said. This includes managing through fear, managing your time well, and talking “to each other,” rather than “about each other.”

  2. Walk Your Talk. For Ray (Bud) Nicola, MD, MHSA, FACPM, “walking your talk” is important. Nicola is an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and the Director of the Northwest Public Health Leadership Institute, and he recently retired from a long career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says that one way of “walking your talk” is “modeling healthy ways of living for everyone in the organization.” He explains, “My coping strategy for the long-term stress that comes with leadership includes regular exercise and sleep—making sure I build these into a daily schedule. In an early job as a Health Officer, I met with managers over lunch and gained 10 pounds in two months. I started bringing my lunch and met with managers while we walked or ran. I felt much better.”

    Tao Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, NWCPHP Director and University of Washington Department of Health Services Senior Lecturer, adds that, “Just as doctors can be the worst patients, leaders can sometimes be the worst examples when it comes to wellness.” He says, “Pressure is part of the leadership package and coping with the pressures of leadership are part of the leader’s overall wellness.”

  3. Prevent Stress. Latrissa (Trish) Neiworth, MA Ed, NWPHLI Leadership Coordinator is also an adjunct professor at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon. She is completing her doctorate degree in education and organizational leadership at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California. Neiworth says lessening stress is a key for over-taxed leaders. “I sometimes find myself working in all three West Coast states—Washington, Oregon, and California—in the same week,” she says. While preventing stress altogether isn’t necessarily possible, planning ahead, anticipating the unexpected, and building in time for non-work related activities like exercising and sightseeing while traveling helps balance a stressful schedule.

  4. Delegate Work. As a leader, there may be the temptation to do as many things as you can yourself. While that might give you more control, it does little to empower your staff. The late Stephen Covey, an American educator in business, author and keynote speaker, saw delegation as key, adding, “an empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”

  5. Be Present. Being in the present moment is easier said than done for busy leaders. This includes not thinking about the next meeting when talking with a team member, not planning tomorrow’s schedule in your mind when having coffee with a friend, and not checking your e-mail when enjoying time with your family.  Internationally known psychologist Abraham Maslow put it this way: “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

  6. Keep it Simple. In the Forbes article, “Gates on Gates,” Bill Gates, American business magnate, investor, programmer, inventor, and philanthropist, stated that one of the best pieces of advice he ever received, besides that from his father and mother, came from mentor Warren Buffett. Gates stated Buffett advised him to “keep things simple.” Explained Gates, “His ability to boil things down, to just work on things that really count, to think through the basics—it’s a special form of genius.”

    Keeping things simple also means keeping the work in perspective. Leaders coping with intense pressures today may find one notion that applies to all the strategies shared above: Don’t demand “perfection” of yourself or your team—focus instead on simply doing your best.


Latrissa (Trish) Neiworth, MA Ed is the Coordinator for the Northwest Public Health Leadership Institute. She is also an adjunct professor at Warner Pacific College. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in education and organizational leadership at Pepperdine University. She compiled this information.

: Resources
: Pressure, Stress
Isabelle says:
Dec 03, 2013 05:47 PM

I am a very transparent person. When I feel stress it shows. It's not pretty but I try to make it funny and I do try to be mindful.

Mindfulness means focusing on one's intention and actions without judgment. Basically-- think about things while you are doing them but try not to think about yesterday or what will happen in an hour. This is basically-- to me --like sticking the landing on being human.

I found this piece in the New York Times about mindfulness and smiled (

Be a leader, try to stick the landing but if you flail-- be a good person and be funny.

Cindy Smith says:
Dec 18, 2013 10:48 AM

What a timely article, Trish. A recurrent theme I heard during our Leadership Institute Webinar today was time management and priority setting. As one faculty member pointed out, as leaders, we will be asked to stretch ourselves into new leadership roles so it comes with the territory. I like Bud's Walk the Talk-I've also come to the conclusion and set self care as a top priority. I schedule in my workouts on my daily planner and set aside time at night to have my gym bag ready to go. To be a Leader, we must model "best practice" habits both "on and off the field". Without self care, our emerging leaders may eventually burn out or implode.
Like you, I do my best to integrate my personal interests into and around my work. When at conferences, I will extend my stay by a night and visit local arts and entertainment and recreational highlights. It really renews my spirit and makes me appreciate the privilege of work related travel that enables me the opportunity to indulge my love of arts and exploration.
Delegating does create fear of losing control. I think it takes courage to delegate because you are in essence creating mini leadership opportunities for others for work that you may have garnered respect and appreciation for. However, delegating these mini projects allows us as leaders to build a team of doers who can help us reach a more comprehensive version of the Vision we are pursuing than what we could accomplish on our own.
Being PRESENT is an ongoing challenge isn't it? With so many competing deadlines and expectations, it's very tempting to multitask and work on the next big thing if things appear to be moving slowly etc. This is a great reminder to be engaged and catch everything; sometimes it's just the matter of showing respect to the process and participants which builds the relationship we may need and appreciate in the future.
Keeping it simple IS genius; it is a major tenant of what my Omnitrition mentors, Heidi Whitehair (top distributor) and Roger Daily (sole owner of Omnitrition)teach us; stick to the basics so that everyone we come into contact with will say to themselves, I can do that! and so, you've just duplicated your self and your efforts into a new leader.
I've learned a lot about giving myself and others, Grace. That yes, I am doing my best and if that is ever in question, I am happy to outline what I'm currently working on and let my administration take a look and make suggestions!
Life is Good, thanks for the post!

Michele Roberts says:
Dec 27, 2013 02:16 PM

Thanks for these tips Trish. They are very timely for me as I start a new role in my organization. It's both unnerving and exciting to transition to a new job, especially after being in my last position for 8 years. This is a role I wanted to be in and I am challenging myself everyday to figure out what level to be working at and how to manage my time. My new boss reminds me that I not only set the pace - I model it. It is so important to think about how we're modeling leadership and management for the teams of staff we work with. That sets a tone for how the whole office approaches their work and ultimately the impact we'll have. I also think delegating work is so important to supporting staff to develop their own skils. I know much of the success I've had is because past supervisors and leaders have delegated challenging work to me. Together we can always do more.

Andrew Epstein says:
Dec 28, 2013 04:37 PM

Systems and environmental strategies can play an important role in supporting leaders as well as staff in coping with pressure and managing stress. For example, in our worksite at the Portland State Office Building, we have a wellness center in the building that makes it easy for employees to exercise during the work day, which can help with stress management. A tobacco-free campus policy supports employees who would like to quit tobacco use or stay quit. A healthy meetings policy makes it easier for employees to make healthy food choices. And for those who are dealing with stressful situations and need help with perspective or problem solving, our Employee Assistance Program offers free and confidential consultation. While ultimately it’s up to each individual public health leader to make good choices in order to cope under pressure, maintaining a supportive work environment can help all in the organization be more likely to succeed and be well.

Trish Neiworth says:
Dec 30, 2013 09:37 AM

Andrew, Michele, Cindy and Isabelle - All excellent points raised in your comments; systems strategies are definitely key as are the environments you work in. Setting the tone and being a role model to others is very important and being willing to share and get feedback can help. The mindfulness article provided is another great resource. If you haven't read it already, you might consider Kegan and Lahey's "Immunity to Change" - it provides practical tips on how to "pinpoint and uproot" our own immunities to change and how we can unlock potential in ourselves and our organizations.

Stacy de Assis Matthews says:
Dec 30, 2013 12:11 PM

These are great reminders as I move into my busiest time of the year at work. On my 360 call I spoke to Dr. Orton about managing yourself and delegating work, and while these may be more time consuming in the short run, they pay off in the long run. I want to focus on these during the coming year. Also, earlier this year I saw an interesting Ted talk about reformulating how we think about stress so it’s not so stressful: Thanks Andrew for the reminders about resources for staff at our worksite for helping with stress.

Trish Neiworth says:
Dec 30, 2013 02:15 PM

Great points Stacy; delegating is a common issue that many leaders struggle with in the workplace as is looking for ways to find balance. Nice additional resource provided.

Kay Rutherford says:
Dec 31, 2013 11:21 PM

As leaders, we motivate, inspire, and lead our organizations and teams. While reading the 6 steps to be aware of, I thought of an earlier article related to our Case Study #1 detailing John Kotter’s model on how to adapt to change and lead other’s through change. As leaders, we’re constantly adapting to change. Whether the change was planned or a sudden unexpected event – change can cause pressure for the leader, as well as the team and the entire organization.

When I feel under pressure, I tend to buckle down and become overly self-reliant. It gives me the notion that somehow I’m in control. Control is a matter of perspective. I give myself the illusion that I have control, whereas in our everyday lives anything could happen.

My task is to lead myself, and others through the challenge. By becoming mindful of being overly self-reliant, I can delegate. Delegating empowers others in the team and it can create a positive message of “buy-in” to change. Delegating can help to establish a form of “walk the talk” via our actions. Delegating conveys that the leader is building trust and can help create an atmosphere of empowerment and “buy-in.”

I've enjoyed reading the "Take the Lead" blogs, as well as the comments posted.

Josh Stephey says:
Feb 06, 2014 03:47 PM

Cindy is correct--what a timely article! And a well-written one at that. I know that I generally am reminding or trying to remind myself of these points every day as I tend to set high expectations for myself. I must admit, I think I have relaxed a little as I have aged.

The point that Tao makes regarding leaders being the worst examples in terms of self-care and wellness rings especially true for me. No matter who often I hear leaders talk about the need for this, I so rarely witness them following through. While it seems the majority of people understand the fact that leaders and professionals must take care of themselves to be and do the best they can, it is those same people who most often "do not walk the talk." I personally believe the a self-care plan should always be a part of someones professional development plan and goals.

Thanks for sharing this, Trish.

Melanie Payne says:
Mar 13, 2014 08:18 AM

Through our work we have talked about things that I picture having in a Leadership Toolbox of sorts. And I believe this article would be a great addition. It touches on things that many have probably thought about, at least theoretically, and puts it into a leadership perspective. Of course it would make sense to incorporate these elements into our work. But to think of it in the broader context that by doing these things well, it might open the door to be a much more effective leader. That’s extremely helpful to know. A great reminder!

Stacy Wenzl says:
Mar 28, 2014 12:22 PM

The importance of work-life balance can't be overstated. And, it's difficult to master and model. I'm guilty of letting work take priority over my family and I have small children at home! Unacceptable in the big scheme of life and the meaning of life, really. I love taking on projects that interest me, and I get so many opportunities for different projects. I'm very blessed in that way in my job here at SRHD. However, my yes! inclination is resulting in me being stretched thin. My supervisor recently told me, "No more projects!" And, I actually really appreciated her willingness and directness in saying this, for my own good. Points 5 & 6 in the blog both speak to me. Being in the moment is so important, and I'm trying to honor people with my attention. Specific actions like stoppoing what I'm doing when someone comes in my office, turning towards them,and leaning towards them to help me focus.... having fun and laughing is another way I try and stay present. Laughing with people and telling them when I enjoy their present, are all strategies that help me stay present. Another strategy I'm working on relates to "Keeping it Simple." I've identified my 3 key program strategies. I intend to put them up on my wall big and visible for all. My intention is to ask of every "opportunity" put in front of me... does this opportunity help me meet one of my 3 big objectives? If the answer is no, then I plan to turn it down. Easier said than done... walking the talk. But I'm working on it!

Tai Cooper says:
Apr 12, 2014 01:42 PM

Great post Trish! A reoccurring issue that I have in my own life, and I've heard within the class is time management. I know that when I get stressed, and overwhelmed I tend to stay to myself and just try and get the work done. I forget about delegating work. These are the biggest areas in my new position that I am working the most at. I agree with Stacey, often times delegating can actually be more time consuming (training the individual, or possibility of errors), however I realize the benefits. Not only does delegation help with my work load, but it also helps enhance the skills on my staff which is a win-win for both of us!

Additionally, the "Walk the Talk" concept that Bud presents rings so true in our workplace. I've recently started implementing a "walking meeting," where me and a staff member will get out of the office and go around the block updating each other on progress of a project or goal that we are working towards. Before we were meeting in the office, and I always left the meeting feeling unproductive. Now when I get back from the walk I feel more energized and more productive than before!

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