The work of leaders changes as our social reality and economy changes. Time, of course, is always one of the most basic constraints on productive action. However, the felt effects of time pressures can vary a great deal based upon how threatening we perceive them to be. Time-bound demands can, up to a point, excite adaptive reactions – e.g., an intensified focus of cognitive and emotional energies. But as feelings of threat escalate, stress, strain, and fatigue can deplete us and impair our intelligent-productive capacities.
The Social-Economic Context
Starting in the 90’s we saw the popular literature in management and literature promote the positive, energizing effects of continuous and even disruptive change. It was time to cast off the staid structures of thought and procedural action so characteristic of slow-to-evolve bureaucracies. More than rational adaptation, it was an impassioned movement ignited by technology and an expansive spirit of optimism in an era of prosperity. It was cool, chic. Publications like Fast Company anchored their brand in it.
Alas, bubbles burst, periods of budget surplus and prosperity give way to downturns, austerity and fears of survival – recall 2008. This changed reality chastened the risk-taker in us. It’s induced sober attitudes, and norms of prudential scrutiny that live on as manifested in flatter organizations. Thus, a new era and truism has taken hold. It is a flatter world today. Both customers and competitors are closer. There are fewer barriers to entering markets, and seismic crises like 2008 can occur more easily.
The pervasive assumption that we must “do more with less” creates create greater risk of acute stress, strain, exhaustion, and burnout. Therefore, leaders must identify how they can help mitigate the effects of time pressures on others, first among those within the organization, but also those whom we depend on who are external, i.e., customers, suppliers, strategic partners, and other stakeholders. Sounds good, but what does that involve? What does that leadership look like?
Recent research suggest that a transformational approach to leadership works best. Transformational leaders build capacity. Their actions affect underlying levels of self-efficacy (“I can influence outcomes”) in those they lead. Others learn to recognize and understand how stress operates. They learn to notice it as it arises and to intervene before it become debilitating. Moreover, this discipline of self-care and self-management becomes recognized as an important resource for us individually and as groups and teams.
What the specific things transformational leaders do? Here are four basic things they do differently. All manifest in a conversational style of interaction.
Relationship. They establish a developmental relationship: a) They express confidence in others; b) stay actively engaged in their development over time, c) provide timely new challenges; d) and offer constructive feedback to stimulate learning.
Inspiration. They communicate belief and hope in what can be and help others see how they are a part of the whole. They model an attitude of confidence: “We can do it, we can get there.” They also model resilience to bounce back in the face of setbacks.
Reframing. They help others reframe stressful situations when they are feeling overwhelmed. They transform them into problems to be solved, which can down-regulate the feelings of anxiety and fear that constrict our capacities to cope.
Reinforcement. They recognize progress and gains in capability along the way. This review helps other see the change they’ve made. It reinforces self-efficacy and a belief that most situations are amenable to change through their actions.
I invite you to consider these four aspects of your own leadership. Where are the opportunities for you to be more helpful to those you lead and those with whom you collaborate, especially in moments when stress runs high?
 For more on how time pressures and others sources of challenge affect learning, development, and performance, see a related article of mine that addresses this in more detail, Leader Identity Development.
 This was featured in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005), a world in which everything affects everything more immediately and with much greater impact, as was the case with the financial crisis of 2008.
 See, for example, an excellent study reported by Christine J. Syrek, Ella Apostel, and Conny H. Antoni in Occupational Health Psychology (2013).
 The relationship is the crucible within which deep learning and development occur.
 This builds an emotional bond to a cause that they share and won’t quit on easily.
 This isn’t empty exhortation, it is perspective taking that breaks through self-limiting assumptions and beliefs.