The Scottish writer and historian Thomas Carlyle once said ‘no pressure, no diamonds.’ When under pressure some business leaders may indeed perform better and get better results, but some leaders respond to pressure by isolating themselves. To understand how to manage pressure when you’re a team leader I spoke to LEAP’s Mike Gaffney. Here he explains how internal and external support systems are vital for helping the isolated leader to manage pressure and avoid isolation.

Mike many business owners find themselves isolated in their position as leader. How does this happen and what can be done about it?
The first thing to recognise is that isolation is very common amongst business leaders, and can be a very tough and debilitating place to be. It can become the natural habitat for the business owner, because they feel they have to make all the decisions. They have the responsibility and pressure of keeping the business afloat; they have to keep a brave face so their staff don’t worry even more. They have to deal with making sure everybody gets paid and bills are paid and banks are kept at bay. They can’t turn to the people working for them because they feel they are the leader, and they have to have the broadest shoulders in the organisation. This can create considerable pressure that can be more debilitating than the actual issues they are facing.

Should business leaders share the pressures they face with the team around them?
Yes is the answer… they should. As the owner, if you walk into the office with an angry face because you just had a meeting with the bank, and things are not looking good, you may not say anything to the team but they know that things aren’t good. If you bottle it up and internalise the problem, you are just making things worse for yourself and the team around you. There is a phrase that goes ‘people prefer the certainty of pain to the pain of uncertainty.’ If your team are not sure about the difficult situation they are in, and what they need to do to get out of it, that uncertainty creates a greater fear factor. It immobilises thinking and immobilises action on the part of the team. It’s not a new idea. Jim Collins said it in Good to Great, ‘confront the brutal facts.’ It’s important to get your team on board and the starting point is to let them know how serious the situation is. Once people are included in addressing the problem you will be amazed how quickly they commit to developing solutions, and driving those solutions through and making them work.

So the right response to isolation is to be more open with your management team?
Yes, but not just open internally with your team but also be open externally. You need someone outside the company, be it a mentor, a coach or another business leader you respect, to meet up with and discuss the issues and challenges you’re facing. Because it’s your business, you can become isolated and you’re also too attached, too familiar with it. That familiarity will blindside you about the way you think about the business. You think ‘that is how I run the business, that’s how we do things around here.’ Someone independent of the business might say, ‘hang on, that may have worked two years ago but the world has changed.’

The second thing about having someone external to talk to is they can help you to start thinking more strategically as a leader. Consider what the business can do and what opportunities are out there. In any time of significant change, be it significant growth or significant decline, there are always opportunities. But you need to have your antennas up and be receptive to what those opportunities are.

Is participation in a leadership programme a sign of the openness and external support you speak of?
It’s more focused than that. Yes they have to be open to internal and external support, but they also have to be willing to recognise their own fallibility and their own requirements. Nobody can do everything; business leaders need help to address the areas where they are not great, so really it’s about reaching a level of maturity. In the leadership programmes we deliver, it’s about helping the owner to find ways to be more effective. A big part of that is opening up and collaborating internally and externally with people who can make you more effective as a leader.