“The traffic.  The boss. The baby. The dog! That does it, Calgon take me away!”

Do you remember this commercial from the early eighties? Basically, a stressed out person hits their breaking point and just can’t take it anymore.  And of course the remedy is to escape with a hot bath.  If only it were that simple. The reality is that as product management leaders, we inevitably will face stress in our roles. Huge projects, aggressive timelines, demanding executives/customers, constrained budgets … the sources are many.  

But did you know that not all stress is bad? In fact, did you know that your body has a natural response mechanism to help you deal with stress? It’s called the fight or flight response. It’s the body’s way of rising to a challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. From a biological standpoint – your body reacts to the stress triggers, or stressors, by powering up some specific hormones and the nervous system. The hormones increase your breathing, heart rate, and metabolism. You muscles then are taunt and ready for action, your vision & responses improve … if you were an athlete, you can probably relate to a situation where this was true.

So in this context, stress is your body’s defense mechanism turning on to help you react to high pressure situations. But when the high pressure situations become the rule rather than the exception (ie – long-term), the nervous system can become overworked and leave a person feeling depleted, overwhelmed, exhausted. Again, if you’ve ever pushed yourself too hard as an athlete you know what I’m talking about.

Being thrown into a situation where expectations are high, the results seem achievable, and the obstacles are many can be just the environment where true leadership emerges.  The flip side is not understanding limits … our own, or the people we work with. Pushing people (or yourself) too hard for too long can have adverse consequences. 

As a leader, striking that balance is not a trivial task. It is the difference between being purely results driven vs. inspiring a high performing team; between challenging the team to stretch, but keeping expectations realistic; between pushing hard towards an aggressive goal and allowing time to recharge.  How do you strike that balance?