The Art of Leading: Never Let Them See You Stress

Updated on April 4, 2020

By Dr. Mike Zappa

Leaders are always on stage; they are not allowed to have a bad day. It sounds a little harsh, but indeed true. Think about what would happen if your leader walked around showing the weight of the world on his/her shoulders.  They might not be that obvious or dramatic, perhaps even deny they’re having a bad day if asked. The fact remains that their team could tell, perhaps even strangers:  less talkative, less eye contact, just business, appearing distant and distracted. Remember, we garner more truth from non-verbal cues than from the spoken ones: posture, position, and facial expression are key forms of honest communication.

Now take a look in the mirror… when you are having a bad day, or are just anticipating the possibility of one, can anyone tell? If you are confident the answer is no – never, then keep leading and concentrate on sharing your perpetual positivity with the rest of your team. If you reluctantly admit it’s possible that others know when you’re having a less than stellar day, don’t despair…like all leadership qualities this too can be mastered!

Whatever our professional role or personal position in life, the environment is rarely our ideal design: there are always limitations of time, space, personnel, and funds. Combine this with the unexpected and assorted other elements beyond your span of control and you have a large collection of stressors. It is how we process such stress that determines if the world will know we are having a bad day or not. So much of our daily stress is predictable, so in theory should be easier to manage. Even the unpredictable is manageable with the correct perspective and practice. 

Start by answering the following 10 questions.

  1. What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
  2. What drives you to do your best at work?
  3. What do you value most about your team?
  4. What can you think about that can always make you smile?
  5. How do you feel having accomplished your goals after a long crazy day or week?
  6. What could make you arrive at work grumpy?
  7. People who know me can tell I’m stressed when I ___________.
  8. What can turn your good day into a bad one?
  9. My staff would be more satisfied if I___________.
  10. The thing that frustrates me most about my team is____________.

It should be clear that the answers to the above questions can be grouped into two distinct categories: foundations and flags.  The first five are what I consider to be one’s personal foundations,  these  serve as the basis for what drives us, what is truly important .  The last five can be considered warning flags, these can become negative stressors that prevent us from being the best person or leader possible.

Strive to keep your foundations at the forefront of your mind and have your eyes wide open to the warning flags in your life; do it as often as you have to from when you wake up in the morning until you close your eyes at night.  In time, it will become as natural as glancing at your smartphone!

The art of leadership is clearly in your hands – remember your five personal foundational elements by looking at your right hand and your five personal warning flags as you look at your left hand.  Never let them see you stress!

Dr. Michael J. Zappa is the president of Highsmith-Rainey Specialty Hospital, and Cape Fear Valley Health System Vice President and Associate Chief Medical Officer. He balances business acumen with clinical expertise, and shares his thoughts on leadership and the healthcare industry at

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