Effective leadership is important for projects – no one disputes that and a quick online search will throw up plenty of survey results that position leadership as one of the key factors for project success.

However, leadership is hard work. It’s also very stressful. I hear a lot about ‘being a leader’ but I don’t think the discussion is wide enough. We also need to talk about how to cope with being a project leader because it’s difficult, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience at the top.

Avoiding Sacrifice Syndrome

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee talk about a problem that leaders face in their book Resonant Leadership. They say that when leaders give up too much – even in small doses – over time they end up highly stressed and failing in their role as inspiring leaders. They call this Sacrifice Syndrome.

Sacrifice Syndrome happens when leaders are put under stress. It occurs over time and is due to a number of factors, all of which eat away at a leader’s ability to cope in the longer term. For example:

· The pressure to get results
· Heavy responsibility, perhaps financial responsibility for the return on a project
· The perpetual need to influence others, using your social capital for the good of the project
· Loneliness.

What can cause stress at work?

All of these things, and others that I’m sure you can think of, start to eat away at your capacity to successfully lead your project in the longer term. You begin to suffer from symptoms like these:

· Working longer hours
· Working harder but failing to see any results
· Not enjoying quiet downtime outside of work
· Feeling guilty about not working
· Relying on caffeine or alcohol or adopting poor eating habits
· Feeling tired all the time
· Forgetting the small things or having to rely heavily on automated systems for remembering because you know your memory isn’t up to it.

I can certainly recognise some of those symptoms. Can you?

Project Stressors

Project management is inherently stressful. You are managing people who don’t work for you. You are using your influencing and negotiating techniques to get work done, often at the highest level. You are only as good as your last project – sometimes even your last milestone.

Project leadership involves:

· Complex problem solving and being able to quickly understand solutions without perhaps having the full background
· Decision making in less than ideal circumstances
· Managing unpredictability and dealing with risks
· Working with virtual teams and trying to stay on top of the changes in the workplace that are shifting the ways we communicate and collaborate with colleagues.

Plus there is the implicit expectation amongst many sponsors and senior executives that we will be available 24/7 just because the technology enables that.

The pressures of project leadership, the stress and the ensuing Sacrifice Syndrome when you give it your all have a negative impact on your performance.

In other words, you can burn out as a project leader – and it isn’t even that hard to do.

Dealing with Stress

Perhaps the reason we don’t talk much about the skills we need to manage stress and cope with being leaders is that they are normally solutions so personal that it’s impossible to provide meaningful individual advice in articles like this. You’ll read the stuff you’ve heard before: get enough sleep, take some exercise, eat well. None of it is new to those who have been aware of the work/life balance debate for some time.

The problem comes with finding the time to do this and giving yourself permission as a leader to step back and take stock of where you are.

I think the most underused technique when it comes to dealing with project stress and the pressures of leadership is delegation. Often leaders feel the need to do it all and that the ‘leadership’ parts of the project management job can’t be shared between the team. They can. Everyone can influence. Everyone can negotiate or take responsibility for solving issues. Surround yourself with good, skilled, trustworthy people, and you can delegate more work to the point of being able to cut back on the personal sacrifices you are making for the job.

Less Stress = Better Leadership

However you personally deal with the pressures of leading projects, being able to deal with those pressures is important because it makes you a better leader. Not only that, you’re a better role model for people aspiring to be in your shoes. The team takes notice of the performance of people at the top. The person in the room with the most authority sets the tone, and if they see you working all hours and on the verge of burn out, you’ll spread that poor work ethic and negativity.

The end result and worst case scenario, if it goes on, is that your best people will leave. You’ll be stuck with a team full of people who either mimic your spiral into Sacrifice Syndrome or who are too lazy to get a better job.

Take some time today to think about whether Sacrifice Syndrome is affecting your performance on your project at the moment and if it is, consider carefully what you are going to do about it. As a leader, your choices don’t only affect your own contribution to the project but also those of your team.

What strategies do you use for managing the pressures of being a project leader? Let us know in the comments below.