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Scott Peltin


After getting so much amazing feedback from our previous blog on dealing with the feelings of being overwhelmed, several clients asked us about looking at this from a different angle - that of being a leader.

Being a great leader is not easy. It requires extraordinary self-management skills, communication skills, and motivation skills. There isn't one way to lead and great leaders are often hard to describe, but we always know a great leader when we see one (or better yet, work for one). There has been much written about leadership and have been many studies on leaders, but one topic that rarely is spoken about is how to effectively lead a team from being overwhelmed to being a group of agile problem solvers. As John Reid-Dodick, the Chief People Officer of Dun and Bradstreet and a thought leader on this subject often says, “Great leaders move teams from being frantic to being agile.”

When I was a captain on a fire truck, I remember getting young firefighters on my engine and watching their complete franticness when we arrived on a working fire. Of course doing the unnatural thing of running into burning buildings when others are frantically trying to run out can naturally contribute to this response. My job as the leader of my crew was to teach these young firefighters that the public had an emergency (often the worst day of their life) and called 911 (the universal emergency number in the US). We responded because we were the solution. If we are overwhelmed, there is no one else to call, so we better calm down and professionally solve this problem. When I became a Battalion Chief, and was responsible for running an entire incident, I quickly learned how the leader’s mindset (displayed by voice, calmness, posture, concise communication, etc.) dictated the agility, effectiveness, and professionalism of everyone on the emergency scene.

As we work with top leaders from around the globe (interesting how this is a global phenomenon), one topic they often want help with is how to effectively lead a team who is feeling overwhelmed. This can be a real challenge, especially since no business school or leadership program we have ever seen teaches this. If you are in this situation, these proven tips may be helpful:

.01 Be sure you are not the problem - A frantic leader will lead to a frantic and overwhelmed team. If your style is to lead by interruption, you are a big part of the problem. While there is value in spontaneous meetings/interactions, a good leader is very conscious that interruptions lead to a lack of focus, high stress, and chaos. Becoming sensitive to the ripple effect you cause when your nervous habit is to walk around and interrupt others is a huge first step to creating high performance in your team. An unintended interpretation of your constant interruptions is that you really don’t trust that your team can get their job done so you feel you need to keep on top of them.

.02 Stop fire alarms rather than pull fire alarms - Too many leaders get an idea, or a communication from a customer/analyst/investor, etc., and immediately sound a fire alarm throughout their team. After a while these fire alarms not only lose their effectiveness, they also cause you to lose your ability to purposefully create urgency when you need it. An overwhelmed team is not capable of effectively responding to an emergency but a calm, energized, and focused team is. Think hard about your own reflexive reactions.

.03 Recognize the signs of being overwhelmed early - There are many signs of this but the most common ones we see are: everyone is on their phones/laptops in meetings, people start developing nervous tics, people quickly agree with you (this means they lack the energy to push back and they just want to get away), people lose their normal emotional flows and instead start to look and act like zombies, the number of CCs goes up because everyone is in CYA mode, critical balls start getting dropped, excuses for poor performance start going up, the fun element of work disappears, etc.

.04 Run your team like an echelon - In bike racing, riders take turns at the front of the pack creating a drafting condition that allows the entire group to ride 5 miles farther each hour. Each rider pulls at the front and then slides to the back where he/she can draft off the team, working at 80% and recovering for their next pull. Many of our clients who have implemented this approach have reported that it not only helped the team’s recovery, it also built more trust, developed great leadership and followership skills in their team, and reduced the dominant feeling of constantly being overwhelmed.

.05 Create/Improve/Implement/Role Model performance meeting discipline - While almost all of our executives complain that they have too many meetings, never have we heard a client complain about having too many great meetings. The fact is that high performers hate when they spend their time and produce no impact. A high performance meeting discipline means everyone comes fully prepared (personally and content-wise), meeting times are purposefully short (create urgency and provide time for between meeting transition/recovery), the vision of success is clear (and shared), and communication is concise and meaningful (air time is treated like money because it is). Great leaders role model this personal preparation. They approach meetings like they are peak performances because otherwise they could be handled with an email. These leaders set clear intentions, show up at meetings fully on, and make sure they are in their optimal emotional state. They use nutrition and movement to eliminate brain fog when they design their high performance.

.06 Sincerely ask how you can help - Great leaders have the ability to help take things off others' plates. They have the ability to calm chaos, provide clarity, and inspire. They also sincerely and authentically care about their people. Sometimes just the simple questions like: "How can I help you?" "How are you doing?” and "What are you doing to manage your own energy/recovery?” can go a long way. Then, of course, your job is to do what they need. Words are great but only actions matter.

Life can be crazy and overwhelming even for the most talented and skilled teams. Great leaders connect their talent with the business/team purpose and then move them from frantic to agile to create amazing solutions

By Scott Peltin and Jogi Rippel