One of the most important things I do is working with people who are in leadership roles in very different organisations all over the world. As part of that I find I am frequently asked to engage in coaching the next generation of leaders in how to be effective as leaders.

A hallmark of leadership is you have responsibility but you also frequently feel there are many things you need to attend to. So, it is often the case that leadership and the experience potentially of overwhelm go together.

How do you address overwhelm as a leader?

This becomes a question which any effective leader has to have an answer to. One of the things that’s fascinating to me about being overwhelmed (or fearing that you’re going to be overwhelmed) is that no one is ever really overwhelmed by what they are doing. In fact they are overwhelmed by the number of things they are not doing and that they feel they should be doing. You therefore have this very curious thing that overwhelm is not about what you’re doing but it is about what you feel should be doing. 

The secret of dealing with overwhelm is getting very clear about what matters most. If you don’t know how to prioritise it is going to be really difficult to avoid feeling overwhelmed. If on the other hand you cultivate the art of prioritising then overwhelm is not something you are going to be on the receiving end of because you will always be addressing the questions like… what is most important here? Where do I need to focus my attention first? What is requiring my attention now?

You are therefore constructing timelines for yourself as well as asking, ‘what is my top 10, my top 5, my top 3 things to do? Being able to do this is a learnable skill but without practice it’s something which is very difficult to do in the moment. Until you actually have some means of stepping back you are unlikely to do that because you are way too busy being busy.

Creating breathing space and avoiding burnout

One of the things I notice about people is that the longer they are in the world of work, the busier they get. The busier you are the greater the danger of you not being strategic because you are just doing your best to keep up.

How to ensure that you don’t get lost in your own busyness or you don’t get overwhelmed by the drama of the day? Well, you know what it is like when you come back from holiday – you frequently see things differently. Why? Because you’ve taken a break and stepped back. You’ve created a breathing space.

I think very often that is what good coaching does and it is absolutely why the CEOs I work with value having a coaching space. It is because every so often, on a regular basis, they step back from the drama of the day and they do something really important. They take a breath, they take stock, they look at the big picture and then determine what really matters here. Again they are prioritising, but they are doing so based on their own values and there is an understanding of what is important going forward. They also look at what is in keeping with their own primary values and the goals they seek to realise. If you don’t do this on a regular basis you will forget what your primary values are and what you are going for because you will just be trying to keep up.

Good coaching creates the space to be strategic not just in your leadership but in your leadership style. This prevents overwhelm and that means you get to be a whole different kind of leader  – one who can inspire others to learn how to do this too.

That has got to be a skill worth learning.