Leaders who choose to see uncertainty as an opportunity will be leaders who preside over businesses that not only survive but thrive in the years ahead.
In 1998, researchers at the University of Wisconsin surveyed 30,000 Americans, asking them two questions. How much stress have you experienced over the past year? And do you think that stress is bad for you? They then tracked the respondents for the next eight years. Here’s what they found. Those that reported experiencing high levels of stress were 43% more likely to die, but only if they also believed that stress was harmful. In fact, individuals who experienced high levels of stress but who didn’t believe stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying, lower than even those who experienced low levels of stress and believed in the harmful effects of stress. The researchers concluded that the roughly twenty thousand Americans who die each year due to stress were dying not from stress itself but from their belief about stress.
This study has profound implications for business leaders today. If we were to survey 30,000 business organizations this year and ask the same two questions, my guess is we would get similar results. Businesses are facing unprecedented amounts of stress and uncertainty. The leaders who choose to see this uncertainty as an opportunity will be those who preside over businesses that not only survive but thrive in the years ahead.
We live and act out of the meaning we give our circumstances. The stories we tell ourselves and others drive the actions we take and the results we get. Business leaders have the responsibility to consistently communicate a narrative that acknowledges the challenging reality of these times and, at the same time, articulates the very real possibility of getting stronger because of, not despite, the challenges we face. This is what Nassim Taleb meant when he gave us the term anti-fragile – the property of a system that increases in strength in response to stress.
If you’re leading a system right now, how would you answer the two questions regarding the stress that your organization is facing right now? What story are you telling yourself and your company? And what story would you need to tell to make the next twelve months the most rewarding of people’s lives? This is the primary responsibility of leadership right now. Many of the challenges you face are beyond your control. The story you tell about them and the corresponding actions you take are not.
For more on the University of Wisconsin stress study, it’s worth watching Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk. McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist, and lecturer, is considered the leading researcher on the subject.
If you’ve ever wondered about our current obsession with ourselves, you should check out Maria Popova’s invitation “Unselfing Social,” a 30-day experiment to “make the focus of one in every three things you share on social media. . . something other than yourself or your own work.”
Last week, I watched a terrific movie – Sound of Metal. I highly recommend it.