Leading others has always involved stress – it simply comes with the territory. The global and local uncertainty that COVID-19 brought, however, added a layer of complexity, and magnified its presence in the life of every leader. Whilst stress is not new terrain for leaders, for many of us, the length of time we had to endure these acute levels was. Therefore, learning to manage our own stress is vital if we want to lead over long distances.
An important insight to managing stress, is to recognise that stress does not surface solely because of what goes on in the environment around me, but that it also surfaces because of the way I think about what goes on in the environment around me.
Recently, I realised that one of the ways I was thinking about my responsibilities was perhaps increasing my stress levels, and that if I reframed the way that I approached them, that perhaps I would see the stress reduce.
So, I tried a bit of an experiment.
During the long months of lockdown in Victoria, I would often start my workday, with reminding myself of certain maxims or ideas that I wanted to keep at the forefront of my mind whilst working. One of those was the following: Put aside your agenda and serve the one in front of you. The days I followed this – whether with my colleagues, stakeholders, or my family – were often days when I was productive, and more pertinent to this discussion, I felt my stress levels decrease. The days I failed to put this into practice were the days that my heart rate increased, my mind raced, and tension built up in my body. Let me give you two short examples:
Example 1: My father was diagnosed with cancer in March 2020. My wife, 5- and 3-year-old girls, and myself moved in with mum and dad in June. I made a deliberate choice to serve and help all the members of our family navigate this season. In the midst of lockdown, full time work, schooling my 5-year-old in her first year of school, taking on palliative care duties, and the eventual passing of my dad in late July, putting aside my agenda and learning to be present and serve the members of my family, alleviated much stress.
Example 2: Like tens of thousands of other parents in Melbourne, my wife and I had to help educate our child who was learning remotely from home during terms 2 and 3. While my wife took the lion’s share of the role, I wanted to help ease the burden, and so, for two days a week I sought to play teacher. Often, I would try and speed through my daughter’s schooling and complete it in record time, so I could focus on my “more important” work. Needless to say, I was not concerned about serving her in that moment; my daughter stopped being a person to help and became a task to complete. The result of that on me and all the members of my family, was a marked increase of tension and tears (I’m surprised my daughter is still talking to me).
I am sure that there were multiple factors that contributed to the rising and falling of my stress levels – sleep or lack thereof, grief, the number of tasks on my plate, my awareness of God’s presence and empowerment. Nevertheless, I am also acutely aware that whenever I was solely focused on my tasks, I saw others as an interruption, which raised my anxiety. The converse was also true – more service, less stress.
Perhaps leading yourself first may mean serving yourself last.
Of course, there needs to be balance. We do have important work to do. Neglect of that important work while we are busy serving everyone else is a sure way to also raise anxiety and will take us out of leadership just as quickly as unmanaged stress levels. The goal of this is not to argue for an either/or dichotomy – you don’t have to choose either productivity or people. The goal here is to offer a paradigm of leadership that could make Christian leaders more effective, less stressed, and let’s be frank, closer to Jesus’ ideal of Kingdom leadership.
Whilst Jesus did not institute a particular form of governance for the church, he did speak directly to how leadership ought to be practiced amongst his followers. In his profound book, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians, Australian theologian Kevin Giles, states that “…for Jesus, leadership in his community will be of a distinct kind. It will be servant-like.”
It is a principle that Christian leaders so passionately believe, and all too often, so rarely practice – myself included. Yet, if we reframe our perspective on our tasks and the people that are around us, if we seek to position ourselves into a posture of servanthood, then the stress that is an ever-present reality in leadership, may recede, and its presence would not be as damaging to ourselves, or the people we care about.
About the author
Andrew Groza is the Victoria State Director for Alphacrucis College. He has been a credentialed minister for 14 years and has served in various leadership positions at Faith Christian Church, Harvest Bible College, and now Alphacrucis College.