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Dealing with pressure and stress—how to stay calm and in control, even in the face of chaos.

Updated: Jan 21

In the dynamic and often high-pressure world of leadership, managing stress and maintaining calm is not just a skill. It's a necessity. Whether you're a manager, supervisor, or business owner, the challenges you face daily require a balanced and thoughtful approach to ensure not just your success but the well-being and productivity of your team.

I'm Barbara May, and with years of experience in various high-stress environments, I've developed a method to help leaders like you navigate these challenges. In this blog, we'll explore the STRESS Approach, a set of strategies designed to help you stay calm and in control, even in the face of chaos.

Barbara May's STRESS Approach helps you stay calm and in control, even in the face of chaos.

S - Slow Down to Go Faster

T - Take Mindful Moments

R - Reflect with Purpose

E - Empower with Empathy

S - Simplify, then Act

S - Speak Up Effectively

S - Slow Down to Go Faster

In leadership, the rush to get things done quickly can be overwhelming. Yet, an effective and sometimes surprising strategy is to slow down. This approach, focusing on deliberate actions rather than hurried reactions, can lead to better and faster results. I learned this firsthand in an environment where speed seemed like everything: live broadcasting.

A Broadcasting Insight

Reflecting on my time as a reporter at Access Television on the Learning & Job News, I was initially taken aback by the fast-paced, high-pressure environment of live broadcasting. The show comprised live interviews, multiple camera angles, and pre-recorded segments, all orchestrated simultaneously.

Yet, what struck me most was the calm command of the control room. Observing the producer at work was a lesson in efficiency: amidst the flurry of activity, there was a deliberate and measured approach. By consciously slowing down, despite the chaos, the producer ensured a smoother, faster, and more successful show.

This experience vividly demonstrated the power of 'slowing down to go faster,' a principle that can transform how we handle stress and pressure in any high-stakes environment.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Slow Down to Go Faster

  • Pause to Gain Perspective: In the midst of chaos, a brief pause can provide clarity and help prioritize tasks.

  • Prioritize Tasks: Determine what's most important and tackle those tasks first for more efficient outcomes.

  • Stay Calm: Maintain composure; a calm leader sets the tone for the entire team, fostering a more effective work environment.

The Power of Managing Energy and Focus

'Slowing down to go faster' is more than a stress management strategy; it's about managing energy and focus. By taking a step back and approaching tasks thoughtfully, leaders can ensure they're not just doing things quickly but doing the right things effectively. Sometimes, the key to being a better leader is reminding yourself and your team to 'slow down to go faster.'

T - Take Mindful Moments

In the whirlwind of leadership responsibilities, it's vital to find moments of calm. Mindful moments, brief pauses of presence and reflection, can be transformative. They offer a break from the hustle and remind us of what truly matters. I learned the power of this practice in an environment where stress was a constant companion.

Embracing Mindfulness in Management

During my tenure as a Program Manager at the Military Family Resource Centre, overseeing three programs and 30 employees, I often encountered stressful situations. To navigate this, I embraced the practice of taking mindful moments.

Whenever stress surfaced, I would visit one of the programs—be it the daycare, out-of-school care, or teen center—and immerse myself in the ongoing activities. Whether it was engaging with children in their play, assisting in meal service, or simply observing, these moments allowed me to be fully present and appreciate the impact of our work. This practice not only grounded me in the moment but also offered an opportunity to connect informally with my team, strengthening our relationships.

Embracing these mindful moments became a powerful tool for managing stress, reminding me of the bigger picture and the value of being fully present.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Take Mindful Moments

  • Find Presence in the Busy: Make time to fully engage in the present, appreciating the nuances of your environment.

  • Connect Informally: Use these moments for casual interactions with your team, building stronger bonds.

  • Reconnect with Your Mission: These pauses are opportunities to remind yourself of the broader goals and impacts of your work.

Mindfulness as a Leadership Tool

Incorporating mindful moments into your leadership routine is more than just stress management; it's about enriching connections and gaining perspective. It can help you and your team deal with daily challenges and foster a more cohesive and mindful work culture.

R - Reflect with Purpose

Facing pressure and stress, especially in leadership, calls for quick action and thoughtful reflection. It's about looking beyond immediate challenges to create lasting solutions. This became clear to me in a particularly stressful situation at a sporting event, showing how purposeful reflection can lead to calm control amidst chaos.

Turning Obstacles into Opportunites for Growth

As the Executive Director of the Alberta Racquetball Association, I encountered a challenging situation during my first organized racquetball tournament. A heated match escalated with players swearing and not listening to the inexperienced referee, who ultimately walked away.

This incident prompted deep reflection. On the one hand, such behavior on the court was unacceptable; on the other, we were putting unprepared referees in challenging positions. This reflection led to the creation of the Shadow Referee Program. In this program, experienced referees provided side-by-side support to new referees during games. They offered guidance without taking over, enabling the new referees to develop skills and confidence to handle difficult situations.

This initiative not only improved the quality of refereeing but also fostered a culture of mentorship and learning within the racquetball community. This positive change was a direct result of purposeful reflection, transforming a stressful situation into an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Reflect with Purpose

  • Embrace Reflective Analysis: Take time to understand the deeper issues behind stressful situations.

  • Initiate Constructive Changes: Use your reflections to make positive changes that resolve core issues.

  • Foster Continuous Learning: Encourage your team to engage in reflection, promoting a culture of mentorship and growth.

Reflective Leadership in Stressful Times

Purposeful reflection is a vital strategy for managing stress and maintaining control. By thoughtfully analyzing challenges and implementing practical solutions, leaders can turn stressful situations into opportunities for growth for themselves and their teams.

E - Empower with Empathy

Leadership isn't just about strategies and decisions; it's also about people and relationships, especially in high-stress environments. Empathy is a crucial tool in this regard, a lesson I learned vividly during a personal health crisis. This experience reinforced the importance of empathy, not just as a concept, but as a practical approach to connecting and supporting others under stress.

A Personal Experience of Empathy

At the age of 46, I faced a life-threatening health crisis. After weeks of being misdiagnosed with bronchitis, I collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where it was discovered that my lungs were filled with blood clots, two of which were stuck in my heart. Blinded and terrified, I was given a stark choice by the doctors – an emergency clot-busting treatment with its own risks. It was a nightmarish situation, and thankfully, the medical staff in Emergency were highly focused on saving my life.

The next evening, when I found myself alone and scared in Emergency (they didn't have a bed for me in the hospital), a nurse from the night before stopped by to check up on me. “Wow,” she said. “You look like a different person. When you turned blue on us, I thought we were going to lose you.” She sat by my bed, held my hand, and acknowledged the severity of my situation. We cried together.

In that moment of shared vulnerability, her empathy transcended her clinical role. This experience taught me the profound impact of human connection and the transformative power of empathy in times of stress and uncertainty.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Empower with Empathy

  • Prioritize Human Connections: After high-stress situations, take the time to connect with your team on a human level.

  • Listen Actively: Encourage open and honest communication, showing your team that their thoughts and feelings matter.

  • Show Compassion: In stressful times, prioritize empathy and compassion to create a supportive environment that builds trust and resilience.

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

Empathy is a key building block in overcoming leadership challenges. It's about more than understanding - it's about connecting deeply with others. This approach not only helps in managing immediate stress but also strengthens resilience and trust within the team.

S - Simplify, Then Act

As a manager, supervisor or business owner, you're likely familiar with the relentless pace of the workplace, where it feels like you're always extinguishing one fire after another. This constant state of emergency can be overwhelming, making it hard to stay calm and in control. But there's a strategy that can help: Simplify, then act.

The Stumbling Block Challenge

I had the opportunity to demonstrate this powerful concept during a team-building seminar with the Public Works Department of a rural county in Alberta, which offered a practical and eye-opening insight into handling stressful situations more effectively.

At this seminar, the team, adept at hands-on problem-solving, was given a complex task: arrange a large stack of blocks into four squares. Initially, it took them about 45 minutes, a process marked by trial and error. After the exercise, I presented a personal challenge to them: I claimed I could complete the task in just a minute and 36 seconds. This claim was met with amused skepticism.

However, after coaching a volunteer from the group, they managed to complete the task in just over two minutes. This rapid turnaround was due to pre-task coaching that focused on simplifying their approach. As a result, each subsequent participant who tried the task finished it in under five minutes, demonstrating the significant impact of simplification.

Notably, one member, benefiting from a slight pre-arrangement of blocks, even beat my record, underscoring the effectiveness of a streamlined approach in a high-stress scenario.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Simplify, then Act

  • Focus on Streamlining Tasks: Encourage breaking down complex tasks into simpler steps to make them more manageable.

  • Skill Development: Highlight the importance of learning and applying new skills for effective problem-solving.

  • Regular Practice: Stress the value of practicing regularly to hone these skills and improve efficiency.

Enhancing Teamwork Through Effective Leadership

For anyone leading a team, 'Simplify, then Act' is more than an exercise – it's crucial to reducing stress and improving performance. Simplifying tasks and focusing on skill development can turn a chaotic environment into a controlled, stress-free zone. By adopting this approach, you can transform your leadership style, ensuring that you and your team remain calm and productive, even when faced with the most daunting challenges.

S - Speak Up Effectively

In our journey to manage workplace stress and maintain control, 'Speak Up Effectively' is a crucial strategy. It's about more than just clear communication; it's fostering an environment where open dialogue can flourish, allowing teams to identify and alleviate stressors. This essential skill was highlighted in a situation I witnessed while at a swimming pool with my grandson, demonstrating the importance of effective communication.

A Poolside Lesson in Effective Communication

While swimming in the pool's deep end, we witnessed a tense moment involving a young girl hesitating at the pool's edge. Encouraged by her father, she eventually jumped into the deep end. Panic ensued as the father inadvertently started pulling the young girl under the water while trying to calm her down.

The situation escalated until a lifeguard intervened. With firm, clear instructions, the lifeguard directed the father to release the girl, but under stress, he didn't comply. Recognizing the immediate danger, the lifeguard took decisive action, signalling the other lifeguard and swiftly entering the pool to retrieve the girl safely.

This incident demonstrated the need for clear, effective communication and decisive action, especially in high-stress environments.

Building Blocks for Leaders – Speak Up Effectively

  • Foster Open Communication: Create an atmosphere where team members feel safe to voice concerns and suggestions.

  • Active Listening and Responsive Action: Encourage leaders to listen actively and respond thoughtfully to team feedback.

  • Decisive Communication in Critical Moments: Train leaders to communicate clearly and assertively when it matters most.

The Power of Communication

The lifeguard's effective intervention at the poolside mirrors the role of communication in leadership. Encouraging open dialogue and speaking up effectively is essential in identifying and addressing stressors, leading to a safer and more productive work environment.


The STRESS approach provides practical strategies for leaders to manage workplace stress effectively.

S - Slow Down to Go Faster

T - Take Mindful Moments

R - Reflect with Purpose

E - Empower with Empathy

S - Simplify, then Act

S - Speak Up Effectively

By incorporating these principles into your leadership routine, you can better handle stress and lead your team more successfully in challenging situations. Staying calm and in control amidst chaos is not just a skill but a practice that can be honed and refined.


About Barbara May

Known for her "Stumbling Blocks" philosophy and a multifaceted career spanning over three decades across diverse fields, including sport and recreation, education, not-for-profit management, entertainment and government, Barbara May uses a rich blend of personal stories, humorous examples, and real-world insight to encourage and empower leaders and teams to succeed. She embodies her key message: If you get back up, anything is possible.

Her distinctive background, including joking her way into the Guinness World Records and surviving life-threatening pulmonary embolism (blood clots in her lungs), adds an engaging and inspiring layer to her presentations. She delivers interactive keynotes, team-building seminars and leadership training programs where laughter meets learning and stumbling blocks transform into building blocks for effective communication, teamwork, and leadership. Home | Barbara May | Stumbling Blocks Team Building Seminars

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