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How to Feel Less Helpless and More Purpose When Leading Under Stress

Many construction leaders put on a brave face when the poop hits the fan. 

In construction, leaders may experience crises at work from multiple angles. A major problem on a project. An injury or fatality on a job site. A high-stakes bid. Labour shortages. Supply shortages. Equipment problems. Changing client demands. The list goes on and on. 

When things go wrong, many seasoned construction leaders can keep their chin up…on the outside. Sharing positive and inspiring words. Finding the silver lining.

But too often for leaders in construction, what is happening on the inside tells a different story:

“I just feel so helpless.”

“It’s all so overwhelming.”

“There’s nothing I can do.”

Sound familiar? Even just a little bit?

It’s OK. Quite frankly, it would be ABNORMAL if there was not at least one time in recent memory that you as a leader did not feel some small sense of overwhelm and helplessness in the face of mounting problems and pressures.

But when we find ourselves in a mindset of helplessness, we don’t have to stay that way. We can choose a mindset that serves us and our people more effectively. We can shift from “helpless” leadership to something better – something with more purpose.

So, how can construction leaders cultivate more “purpose” and less “helpless” when things go wrong? How can we feel like what we are doing is making a difference for ourselves and for those around us?

The solution starts with a choice and sticks with a habit.

It Starts with a Choice
One of the bedrock principles of our leadership philosophy at Arrowhead is that while not everything we experience in leadership and in life is within our control, how we respond to those experiences is ALWAYS within our control. 

When problems arise, If we are having thoughts and feelings of helplessness, then the first step toward leading with more purpose is to choose a new thought. One that serves us and our people more effectively.

I once heard Tony Robbins share a simple and excellent strategy for shifting from a powerless mindset to a powerful one.

It was simply this: Put a “HOW” in front of it.

When our mind tells us we are helpless, we should ask: “How can I help?”

When our mind tells us we are overwhelmed, we should ask: “How can I take more control of myself and my work?”

When our mind tells us we are stuck, we should ask: “How can I get myself and my team moving again?”

This is such a simple and empowering strategy we can use in the heat of any moment:

  • in a high-stakes meeting when it seems you’ve hit an impasse
  • in the quarterly financial review when the numbers look really bad
  • after a disappointing call with that key client or partner

In that moment, when you suddenly feel compelled to sit down at your desk and drop your head into your hands, in that moment, put a “HOW” in front of it.

It Sticks with a Habit
Once we have chosen to put a “How” in front of it and taken a step to feel less helpless and more purpose, what can we do next? How can we make that good step stick?

A good thing in life will stick when we make it a habit.

Here’s a simple, practical, daily habit you and the members of your team can adopt to shift from helpless to purpose in leadership and in life.

You will want to get yourself a note pad, journal, or planner for this and break it out every morning for about 20 minutes before you start the rest of your day.

It’s called The Three R’s.

The first “R” is for “Roles”. It starts with asking ourselves the question: “What are my roles at work and in life?”

Usually a list of about 5 or 7 top-of-mind roles will suffice for this exercise to work.

If you are using this tool in the context of your whole life, then your list of roles might look something like mine: I’m a dad, a husband, a business owner, a deacon at my local church, a neighbor, a son, and a friend.

You will have your own list. I recommend keeping it to no more than seven. Anything more than that gets hard to manage and tends to shift our focus away from the most important roles in our life.

Conversely, if you can’t come up with at least five you’re probably not thinking carefully enough about the various roles that you play in life – even if it’s just being a neighbor to the person in the apartment down the hall.

So, what are the five to seven roles that you play in your life right now?

Or at work, in leadership, what might your roles be? People manager. Client manager. Business partner. Mentor. Employee/teammate.

What are your key roles at work?

The next R is responsibilities.

So much contemporary self-help and leadership talk centres on self-will and operating according to our own impulsive desires. In the process, we have abandoned the notion of responsibility.

But the secret to finding more meaning in our life and in our leadership is to reclaim responsibility.

Responsibility is what gives us a sense of meaning. Impulses and feelings are fleeting while responsibilities last. The really important things that last – our legacy and our purpose, for example – is born, not out of our cravings, but out of our responsibilities.

In your journal, underneath each role you have listed write down three responsibilities critical to your success in that role. Some of those responsibilities may feel “small” while some may be larger. But those responsibilities give shape and substance to our roles at work and in life.

In my family, one of my daily responsibilities is to ensure our kitchen remains clean at the end of every night. Another is that our pets are cared for. And another is that the laundry gets done.

It is up to me to make sure I’m fulfilling those responsibilities.

We can debate if those are big responsibilities or little responsibilities, but in my home, there is no question that those are my responsibilities. And if I do not fulfill those responsibilities, the household becomes disorderly, people become frustrated, and the general climate around the place becomes a lot less happy. Trust me.

So, what are the responsibilities that you have associated with each role you play at work and at home? Write those down.

The last R is for relationships.

What are the key relationships that you need to invest in or rely upon to complete your responsibilities and fulfill your roles today?

For example, if you are an executive in a construction business, some key relationships that you might need to rely on today in order to do your job might include a key supplier relationship you need to invest in to make sure you are getting the support you need to do your job effectively.

Or perhaps you need to take time to invest in an employee who is really struggling with some drama going on around him or her on a project.

When we invest in or rely upon our key relationships in our leadership or any station of our life, we find meaning.

Our interdependence uncovers our humanity. We cease to be alone. We cease to be selfish or isolated. In our connection with the key people at work and in our lives we find meaning.

Roles. Responsibilities. Relationships.

If you want to feel less helpless and more purpose in leadership and in life, focus on the three Rs.

What are the key roles you play in your life and your leadership?

What are your key responsibilities in each of those roles?

And what are the relationships you are going to invest in or rely upon for you to fulfill those responsibilities and live out those roles as best as you can?

When you make the choice to live and lead with purpose and begin to make habit of the three Rs, you will feel less helpless, less overwhelm and less stuck. And you will begin to feel more effective, more focused, and more purposeful in leadership and in life.

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