At some point in life, many leaders will admit that the dreams and passions deep in their heart flounder under the pressure to execute goals and tasks with just enough energy to get through Monday. And then, at some point, the innovative possibilities of “what if” die under the heavy weight of “what is.” Maybe you know the feeling. You’ve come to the place where both your passion and purpose have surrendered a white flag to pressure: pressure to produce. Pressure to become and live up to the expectations of others. The truth is, that’s no way to live. Your life has purpose far beyond what you may currently understand and perceive. The dreams and passions distinct within you are to make an impactful and positive difference to the people in your sphere of influence, and this is why it is paramount you do not allow them to be suppressed by stress.

According to the American Institute of Stress, “80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress, and 42% say their co-workers need such help.” Many assume that eliminating stress completely is the target goal of life and leadership. To put it plainly, that’s wildly unrealistic. I have been in leadership for more than 35 years, and I’ve learned there is no such thing as a stress-free life—this reality doesn’t alarm me, and it shouldn’t alarm you either. Instead of running from stress, you need to learn how to manage it more effectively.

The bottom line is, if you’re frustrated, feeling overworked and underappreciated, know this: You don’t have a stress issue; you have a capacity issue.

Capacity: Managing Stress vs. Distress

Everyone must develop his or her own capacity. Each of us begins with a degree of capacity, and as we move through life, we must cultivate our ability to manage challenges, pressures and stresses that cross our path. If we fail to grow in capacity, we end up in distress, anxiety, and life can become daunting. As I wrote earlier, there is no such thing as a stress-free life. However, there is a vast difference between stress and distress. For many, trouble arrives at the doorstep of their heart when poorly managed stress turns into distress: an overwhelming and constant state of anxiety and varying measures of depression. I want to be clear: Stress is a normal part of life, distress is not.

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Many people, motivated to avoid stress at all costs instead of managing stress in a healthy fashion, choose to draw back and avoid the causes of stress completely. However, the price of withdrawing from stress completely is paid for by stunted personal growth. To move in the direction of your life’s potential, choose to enlarge your capacity and better manage stress so it’s a catalyst for your dreams and goals, not a hindrance.

So, what are some of the sources of stress in your life? Personal issues related to your upbringing and family history can have a significant impact upon your mental and emotional health. Of course, there are also times when unexpected, unprovoked challenges or crises are thrown at you. Most of the time, though, the root cause of your stress is not a singular issue but rather a combination of factors, often a series of uncontrollable external factors. If you are paralyzed by stress, let me encourage you to lift your perspective higher to see that it doesn’t have to harm or shrink your capacity, it can actually grow you as a leader and person as you get better at managing it, allowing stress to work for you rather than against you.

Capacity: Learning How to Care for Yourself so You Can Care for Others

As a leader, many people depend on you, both practically and emotionally. In today’s society, a commonly overlooked principle is that you cannot give someone something you don’t possess yourself—like soul health, emotional stability and peace of mind. The first step in growing your capacity in this regard is to recognize that if you don’t monitor your internal drive and soul health on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself in a precarious situation of having a goal in sight but no energy, creativity, motivation or discipline to reach it. My friend, don’t kid yourself: You’re not invincible and inexhaustible. Everyone’s capacity may be different, but no one’s capacity is a bottomless tank.

Therefore, if you are going to grow your capacity, you must get good at balancing your responses to the highs and lows of life as they come. Practically speaking, are you well rested? Are you taking care of your mental and emotional health? Are you taking deliberate action to schedule recreation so that your creativity and work ethic can be replenished? Ask yourself, How consistent am I? Do I swing from jubilant highs to deeps lows in my emotional state? How are my relationships? How is the health of my thought life? If you have extreme fluctuations in the way you behave and respond, you won’t be able to develop the emotional capacity to keep going through the challenges or adversities when they come. Take care of your soul. Build balanced and consistent habits that nurture your spiritual, physical and mental health. Living with emotional balance will bring stability to your life, behavior, and to those you lead.

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Capacity: Dealing With Unresolved Disappointment and the Expectation Gap

Setbacks, disappointment, unmet expectations and even moments of personal crisis are unfortunately part of living in an imperfect world. Deliberately avoiding pain and discomfort at any cost reduces your emotional, mental and spiritual stability by disabling your aptitude to develop the skills necessary to cope with everyday life.

For most of us, difficult, even disastrous life experiences, reinforce the priority to grab hold of what remains of our fragmented reality and not let go (at any cost) for fear of more loss and unpredictability. It is self-protection at its finest. You see, the distance between expectation and reality is in fact disappointment; and the degree your expectation falls short of reality will be the degree of disappointment you experience. Let’s make this personal. Perhaps you thought you’d be married by now, working for yourself or out of debt. Whatever the unmet expectation, disappointment invariably ensues, and unresolved disappointment will sabotage your future and unrealized potential. While no one would dare to invalidate the very real pain of loss you have experienced, your capacity does not grow through wins alone—you need the setbacks to develop your character and ability to persevere.

I have learned that sometimes it takes a step backward to go a long way forward. Setbacks provoke a sense of loss, but when you understand that setbacks provide the opportunity for progress, not only does your perspective shift, but a door of opportunity opens for your capacity to grow. Capacity is increased not in the problem, but in the overcoming.

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Capacity: Learning How to Say “Yes” to That Which Matters Most

Busyness, and the consequently hasty life that trails, rob you from living a diligent life—a life that will yield results. As your life moves forward and your capacity increases, you can’t continue to add more to your plate unless there are other areas where you commit to doing less. You must ask yourself, What do I want to accomplish? What should I continue and what should I discontinue? There will be times when you’ll need to delegate the tasks and objectives that contend for your attention yet simultaneously strain you away from purposed leadership, thus robbing you of time and energy. As a leader, you must learn to say no to certain things so you can say yes to what matters most.

So, how do you identify what to offload and what to retain? The following is a checklist to help you to decide what to lighten from your load, releasing you to increase your capacity and productivity:

  • What is your objective?
  • Is this task helping to accomplish your objective?
  • Could someone else be doing it?
  • Is it essential to what you want to achieve?
  • Does it serve any real purpose?
  • How is it helping the bigger picture, or is it something you do because “that’s how we’ve always done it”?
  • Is it a distraction?

The key to answering those questions is your capacity to create the margin you need in order to say “yes” to the things that will yield a high return and then delegate the rest. If your life is overflowing with distractions, burdens and unnecessary tasks, let that be a clarion call to make a change for your own life and for the life of those you lead.

Ultimately, leadership is about longevity; if you want to grow in your leadership, make a lasting impact and invest substance into your sphere of influence, then you will need to learn how to enlarge your capacity. Make the intentional effort to develop in effectively managing stress, caring for yourself so you can care for others, overcoming disappointments and setbacks, and learning how to say “yes” to that which matters most. I know your greatest days are ahead.

Brian Houston
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