3 Key Skills Leaders Need to Have to Manage Work Stress in a Positive and Productive Way

As executive coaches to a wide variety of organizations, we have witnessed first-hand the increased stress on leaders created by the COVID pandemic. Many turned to ineffective or maladaptive coping mechanisms or picked up bad habits that persist to this day. As a team of psychologists who meet with hundreds of leaders on a regular basis, we noticed this change in the leadership landscape immediately – and still observe that stress levels remain far higher than they were prior to the pandemic. As a result, many leaders feel they are languishing in their roles. The good news is, we learned significant lessons from those dark days that we can carry forward.

While not a new skill, the ability of an executive to manage their stress in positive ways is likely much more important for an organization’s success than it may have been just five years ago. It not only improves the well-being of leaders themselves, it also models productive stress management to colleagues throughout the organization. Additionally, research also shows a link between leader engagement with wellness efforts and improved employee performance, job satisfaction, and lower turnover.

How can leaders better manage their stress? Three key ingredients are self-compassion (leaders being compassionate and accepting towards themselves), emotional regulation (being able to remain calm and collected under increasingly difficult circumstances), and cognitive agility (being able to adapt thought processes to look for positive outcomes in seemingly impossible circumstances). The good news is that these three skills can be honed through practice, and many leaders become very adept at all three.

Here are practical steps that can help you acquire these skills:

  • Practice mindfulness to be more fully present and aware of your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness work has been shown to improve attention, relationships, and physical health, and reduce anxiety. Meditation and mindful breathing are two good options to practice mindfulness.
  • Use self-compassion language such as reframing negative self-thoughts into more positive and encouraging language. Ask yourself, “Is this how I would talk to a friend?”
  • Practice deep breathing skills to help regulate emotions through intentional breathing.
  • Develop cognitive agility by exposing yourself to new and diverse experiences. This can help broaden one’s perspective and stimulate new ways of thinking.

April is National Stress Awareness Month, which provides a good opportunity to consider how you can enhance your well-being (and that of your organization) by developing stronger stress reduction strategies.


  • Jami Wolfe, Ph.D., SPHR

    Jami is a Managing Partner at CMA Global, where she has been serving clients since 2008. Jami’s work focuses on areas such as: team development, organizational assessment, organizational structuring and development, leadership coaching and development, linking of executive performance with business strategy, talent management, and development of training programs to maximize workforce and leadership performance. She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology is from St. Louis University.

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