Dr. Katharina Schmidt PsyD (Inspiration & Discipline) is an executive coach, independent corporate sense-maker and leadership researcher.

Being an effective leader in innovative and complex environments has always been a challenging journey. Continually developing vision, bringing people on board and creating movement toward goals isn't a linear path. It's a multifaceted, growth-triggering experience. This is especially true in a world that's becoming more volatile, ambiguous and hyper-connected.

This kind of environment creates more challenges and emotional distress that sometimes can be overwhelming. But rarely do leaders talk openly about how vulnerable their roles can make them. One of the most prevalent leadership myths is to be always in control and not to show emotion. I regularly coach leaders who are stressed, emotionally triggered or drained as a result of this belief. In these cases, my goal is to give them strategies for resourcefulness in difficult situations.

Emotional pain, grief or overwhelm can lead to personal growth, maturation and adult development, all of which are correlated to higher leadership effectiveness. Sometimes there are no quick fixes. Time, goal- and value-consistency and consistently addressing various issues one by one with clarity are potential follow-up actions. However, there are five approaches for turning emotionally triggering times into learning opportunities.

1. Reframe phases of overwhelm as teachable moments.

A natural tendency of most leaders (and people in general) is to avoid emotional pain. Unfortunately, personal growth does not happen without pain. When external demands are bigger than internal capability, the friction between the two creates intense emotion. That's just human nature. So it helps to reframe and normalize moments of emotional disbalance as a sign that something needs to change.

One CEO client of mine, for example, was feeling drained from working with the founder of the company he lead. His colleague didn't seem to trust anyone's authority and kept interfering with business decisions. After almost a year of reflection work, my client realized how vital autonomy and trust were to his job satisfaction. Once he left that company, he was able to thrive. This might not have been possible if he hadn't examined this stressful period in his career from a growth mindset.

2. Be vulnerable with people you trust.

Vulnerability can be really challenging for leaders, as many believe that suppressing signs of stress makes them more effective. But that strategy doesn't facilitate emotional learning and maturation. In my experience, it can actually dampen people's emotional landscape overall, making it harder to engage in positivity.

Creating and connecting with a support system that you feel safe with is a great way to process overwhelming situations. Having people who welcome your vulnerability can help you develop emotional intelligence and see solutions more clearly.

3. Validate your emotions by putting them into words.

Whether you write it down or say it out loud, acknowledging when something is stressful or anxiety-producing is the first step toward dealing with it. Noticing thoughts and emotions creates valuable input for decision-making. When you begin seeing your feelings as internal data, they can be used to reflect and evolve beyond unhelpful (often subconscious) beliefs and assumptions. Remember: Beliefs can be challenged, behaviors changed and boundaries redefined.

One coachee, a successful partner at a consulting firm, felt overwhelmed and exhausted from having extremely high expectations at work while parenting young kids at home. Eventually, he called this phase “the rush hour of his life.” Coming up with this description helped him validate his experience, which led to feelings of relief. Then he was able to put things into a different perspective.

4. Recognize behaviors that stem from childhood.

Most of our behaviors, particularly when we're under pressure, originate in our early childhood experiences. This includes the way we react when experiencing stress. As you reflect on your current situation, consider moments in the past that led to similar feelings. What was the context? Do you behave differently now, or are you responding the same way you did in childhood? Creating more awareness about where your behaviors come from helps you see things objectively.

5. Remember to breathe.

Our physical and emotional states are linked. Regulating the nervous system can help mitigate feelings of stress and overwhelm. One strategy is monitoring your breathing. By focusing the mind on the breath, deepening inhales and exhales and slowing down breathing, you can actually level out the production of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Breath literally creates more space in your body and mind. Use this time to zoom out, reflect more productively, name some patterns and reframe situations.

As a leader, you must be able to face challenges with clarity and confidence. But rather than trying to power through hard times, it's critical to acknowledge the overwhelm you're feeling. This reflection can give you the right internal data that leads to personal growth—and greater leadership effectiveness.

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