Leadership can be a difficult skill. Uninspiring, misguided and generally poor leaders can have a devastating effect on a business or a team. But what about stressed leaders?

Of course, every leader will experience quite a considerable amount of stress and strain, but those who are unable to deal with this strain will likely fall into the above category.

Indeed, new research has highlighted how the path to leadership is far from easy. Zety explored the careers of the most powerful world political leaders and found that three out of the top four had either been fired, investigated or declared bankrupt in their careers before politics. These politicians are clearly quite used to the controversies and strains of leadership having experienced it in their careers before, but how can they manage the pressures of world leadership?

Under increased pressure, being a leader so powerful is a tough task, and Zety spoke to a number of leadership development, stress management and career experts to understand more.

Lucia Knight, who wrote a book on career change and happiness, said that the main impact severe mental stress has on a leader is that they lose the ability to prioritise their physical and mental health, which reduces their impact on their team and business as a whole.

She said: “Inability to prioritise self (Physical health & mental health) to enable continued success, reduced ability to communicate in a compelling way, reduced ability to care for your team in a highly emotionally-intelligent way, reduced capacity to do the work which has knock-on impacts on the team, the organisation and ultimately the shareholders.”

Marilyn Devonish, who has worked on developing leadership and helping leaders manage stress for the past 19 years, gave her views on what the main impacts of severe mental stress has on leadership skills. She said the clearest forms of mental strain on a leader is poor decision making, leading by bullying and never being able to switch off from work.

Firstly, she says, poor decision making affects many leaders who have not developed the necessary skills to learn to deal with an overworked mind, crowded by a heavy workload: “Stress often leads to bad or poorly conceived leadership decisions because people can’t think straight, assimilate and process information, be creative or articulate themselves particularly well when under pressure unless they have learnt the skills to allow them to do so.”

Unfortunately, in the urgency of trying to clear this workload, some may become outwardly stressed, impacting on their relationship with colleagues, family and friends which can be destructive. “Stressed leaders just want things done and done now, because if they are stressed or don’t know the answers, they don’t have the time to sit down and discuss things rationally with their teams.

“The stress can bring out the worst in people when it comes to emotional intelligence, which they either take out on themselves, their team, or on family and friends outside of the work environment.  Whichever it is, the negative knock on effect can be destructive.”

Indeed, a leader may constantly be thinking about their job, and will follow a person around in their personal lives, completing a worrying cycle of stress and mental strain…

“There’s no off switch.  Severe mental stress doesn’t just stop once the clock hits ‘x’pm and you walk out the door.  It can continue into the evening, and be the first thought that wakes them up in the morning, and consume the weekend; particularly Sunday afternoon and evening where the feeling of dread creeps in.”

Political leaders

Due to the nature of the job, political leaders must of course deal with the above problems relating to leadership, but Devonish also noted several specific issues facing those in charge of governing their country.

Listening and wrestling with the opinions of others in a passionate, ambitious team of future leaders in a political cabinet meeting can clearly be a difficult challenge, so having a solid internal sense of self is crucial: “Political leaders have to listen to a lot of voices and opinions so if they don’t have a strong sense of self and an understanding of the issues being debated, that might lead to scattered or knee-jerk reaction decisions, and internal conflicts.”

A team of loyal and trustworthy colleagues is important in all walks of life, and none more so than in political situations. Without that support, there will be major conflicts to be resolved: “If your team are not 100% with you that can cause major internal and external stress. There’s more than enough for political leaders to handle without having to watch their back and guard against their own team.”

And finally, in this current climate of polarization in politics and the prominence of social media platforms, it is very difficult to function if a leader does not grow thick skin. The lack of this could lead to two different extremes: giving up on principles because of criticism, or badly handling criticism and lashing out against it: “This can either to lead to wishy-washy leadership driven by fear, uncertainty or trying to appease everyone, or the negative backlash where they hit out at critics to score points rather than truly lead.”