From Stress to Success: Leadership Crucibles What I Learned in the Home of Mark Twain

Stress has benefits. Your challenges are powerful teachers, pointing the way to your values, desires and new opportunities. Out of a leadership crucible can come success.

Almost ten years ago, on a Tuesday in December, I was on my way to the airport for a very important flight, taking off at 6:20am. A major meeting awaited me in Minneapolis just a few hours later with sales VPs, my boss and the head of marketing for the Nature Valley brand. We had run out of granola bars. It was my job to get more bars produced at any plant I could find to make them. While this may not seem like a major crisis, we had sold more product than we could produce and the division’s profit was on the line. Not to mention plenty of angry soccer moms, mountain bikers and golfers who wanted their Nature Valley! This journey had led me to Hannibal Missouri, better known as the home of Mark Twain, and one of our key manufacturing plants.

So here I am, driving to the St. Louis Airport, it’s raining and dark and early December. A crackly country song is on the radio and I’m toggling between that and old school rap music, getting frustrated by both. Rehearsing in my mind how I will explain to the leaders…how I will explain that it will take six more months to even get close to making enough product to satisfy demand, and to even do that will require a multi-million dollar investment. I drive to the airport with about 45 minutes to make my flight, already a little nervous. 

The problem was, the rental car drop off was not near the airport. Frantically I drove by the airport realizing I had made two big mistakes – one, to not leave more time to get to my flight and two, to not pay closer attention as I was driving. Long before the days of the iPhone, Waze and Google Maps, I was lost. 

Ten minutes later I found the Avis drop off two exits past the airport.

With a clenched stomach on the shuttle to the terminal, I debated calling my boss to tell him I wouldn’t make the flight, or the meeting. Then I realized it wasn’t even 6am. 

Approaching security, I look at my watch. 6:05am. The plane door is about to close. With a line of 30 odd people (it is Missouri after all J), I desperately and simultaneously sheepishly head to the front of the line. A very loud, boisterous TSA agent asks what I’m doing. Handing her my ID, I say “Please, let me get through right away, my flight leaves in 15 minutes”. To which she responds, almost shouting to each person in the line, yet very slowly, “Well, well, well… Miss Jessica here is so important. She thinks she’s special. So special she thinks she can just waltz in here to the front of the line. Miss Jessica has a flight to catch. Don’t we all have a flight to catch? What do you think, will we let her in?” By now the line is laughing, at me, at the situation, at the TSA agent. My throat is dry. I’m not laughing. She waves me through.

Miraculously, I made the flight, and the meeting. I botched the discussion a bit, still frazzled by the pre-dawn stress session and slightly incoherent.

Frankly I don’t remember the meeting that well. What I do remember is sitting on the plane reflecting on 3 simple truths:

1.      I am Grateful. I may not be special, but I’m here to serve – my team, my boss, our customers. Thank goodness those kind people let me sail through. How generous of them when they too had a flight to make.

2.      Scheduling is Important – and so is everyone else’s time…the people in line, in the meeting, on the plane. Meetings just minutes after an early morning flight. I now try to put in a 15 minute buffer when I’m in the same place, or an hour buffer when I need to get elsewhere. In those gaps I have space for meetings running late, or to send out follow-ups immediately versus adding to my to-do list.

3.      Bad News is Best Delivered Calmly – it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it. Had I walked into that meeting calm, chances are I would’ve better explained the situation and prevented some stress for my boss and our sales teams.

Just a few months prior, I had taken my first meditation workshop at the General Mills headquarters. The Hannibal MO experience was a sharp contrast to how I had felt in that conference room, sitting on the floor, watching my breath, choosing to witness versus respond.

This was just one of many events that highlighted how my experiences were colored by stress. My effectiveness as a leader was hampered by stress, by anxiety, by lack of focus. Stress led me to miss an exit and almost a flight, to be out of touch with my colleagues as well as strangers in an airport. 

I knew there had to be a better way…a way to stay calm amidst chaos, to be grateful amidst a time crunch, and to protect my time and that of others for more effective work.

What's the most stressful story of your career? What did it teach you?

Recently I spoke to a commercial real estate executive in LA, who shared that a 3:00am conference call from the shower was his "wake-up call" to switch jobs five years ago. Often through stress we finally say ENOUGH. The excitement and energy point us in a new direction towards deeper fulfillment and more effective behavior and habits.

Sometimes all we need is permission: to switch careers, to take a vacation, or to innovate with our team. Sometimes all we need is a reminder: to start a new habit, to better care for ourselves, to build in time to get from A to Z. Stress tells us "I deserve better" and gives us a chance to reprioritize our time and energy for optimal wellness.

I want to hear YOUR leadership crucibles to feature in my upcoming e-book The Energized Executive.

Share your STRESS TO SUCCESS story here. All who enter will get a free copy of the book when it comes out in late May!

Spring is the most productive time of the year. Look outside at all that nature is busy producing -- new flowers, trees, animals, fruits and more. Turn stress into success and harness your vital energy this season! If you’re not sure where to start, check out the 2 simple steps I share here on tapping into your own creativity.

In service,