Leadership and Health

Gerald David Nicklen

(This article was prepared especially for AU-24, Concepts for Air Force Leadership.)

The holistic health concept of the 1960s is being readvertised as the wellness craze of the 1980s. It is clear however, that many health problems, with their adverse effect on job performance, have not been solved. Health problems can be especially critical for leaders, who have to stay healthy, but for various reasons may not. One reason is that so many leaders are workaholics. When they combine their work habits with smoking, too much alcohol, improper diet, too little rest, lack of periodic medical checkups, and constant stress on the job, they create a synergistic effect on their health and well-being that can result in illness or death. Most leaders are probably aware of the deleterious effects of any combination of the above factors, with the possible exception of stress. They may think that stress "goes with the territory" and that they will just have to put up with it. It is true that leaders are likely to experience higher levels of stress than do persons with less responsibility. It is also true that leaders, like anyone else, can get sick from stress. Just what is stress, and how does it make people sick?

Stress is "anything that places an extra demand on you."1 Demands are being placed on us all the time and are usually not considered stressful; stress occurs when we are faced with some extra demand, good or bad. Good news, such as a promotion or a transfer to a highly desirable location, can be just as stressful as a demotion or dismissal. How can this be? Because both experiences place extra demands on you, and your body cannot distinguish between good and bad news. Stress caused by the additional responsibilities of success, or by failure and fear, create the same response in your body.2

How does the body respond? First, it initiates a biochemical change throughout your entire system. Your muscles tense and your blood vessels constrict. The capillaries, tiny blood vessels just under the skin, close down completely. The pituitary gland, located in the brain, injects two hormones into the bloodstream to stimulate the adrenal and thyroid glands. This greatly increases your physical strength and energy. Your pulse rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and your digestion stops. Second, your body begins to consume energy at a much faster rate than usual. The third step of a normal response to stress is instantaneous and vigorous muscular activity. The physical changes just described have great survival value in situations where physical danger is present.3 What happens in stressful situations where no physical danger is present? The body prepares itself to fight or run and then, when it does neither, is unable to discharge the tension and relieve the stress. It is unrelieved stress that damages your health, and job-related stress may go unrelieved for long periods of time for the following reasons: First of all, the fight-or-flight response is totally inappropriate for relieving job-related stress. For that reason, job-related stress can continue for years without any let up. Secondly, because your body reacts to job-related exactly as it would to fear of a physical assault, it goes through the exhausting cycle of fight-or-run preparation repeatedly with no way of immediately relieving the tension on the job. What does this do to your body? The extra adrenaline can affect your immune system and lower your resistance to illness. Your white blood cells can be impaired and reduced in number, and the constant arousal of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to heart disease and other ailments. Chronic stress has been linked to ulcers, hypertension (high blood pressure), insomnia, backaches, headaches, and heart attacks.4

Since unrelieved stress is so dangerous to your health, what can you do to relieve or prevent it? Experts in the field have offered various solutions. Scientists who studied a group of employees at Exxon's physical fitness laboratory in New York found that regular exercise is an excellent remedy for stress-related fatigue.5 Robert L. Veninga and James P. Spradley are convinced that exercise releases stress-related tension better than any other technique. This conclusion is not surprising, since the body's response to stress is mobilization for strenuous physical activity.6 Dr John Grist of the University of Wisconsin conducted an experiment with two groups of depressed patients by having one group jog for 10 weeks while the other group was receiving psychotherapy.7 After 10 weeks, the joggers showed more improvement than the patients receiving psychiatric care. Depression is a major symptom of stress, so this experiment demonstrated the value of physical exercise as a release for stress.

In addition to a vigorous exercise program, experts recommend several other techniques for preventing and relieving harmful stress. For example, you should communicate your needs. If something is bothering you at work, talk about it with the people who can help you. Through discussion, the problem may be solved or your perception of the problem may change; either way, the stress will be relieved.

Do something you like to do every day. Make plans, so that you can look forward to some pleasurable activity and enjoy it during the workday. It doesn't matter what as long as it makes your day more pleasant. Enjoyable hobbies are especially helpful.

Finally, develop a philosophical outlook.8 It is probably safe to say that all leaders strive for excellence, if not perfection. However, if you demand nothing less than perfection in all things, you are demanding the impossible and dooming yourself to a life of frustration. For some leaders, leaming to compromise and accept the best they can get, instead of what they would like to have, is the hardest part of their job. Such compromise is essential if they are to enjoy a long and healthy life.

When Portia, in William Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar," asked her husband Brutus why he was acting strangely, Brutus answered, "I am not well in health, and that is all." To which Portia responded, "Brutus is wise, were he not in health, he would embrace the means to come by it."

Modern leaders are as wise as Brutus. They know how to "embrace the means" to come by health, and they have a duty to keep fit and healthy. If they don't do it, if they sacrifice their health to duty, they are guilty of dereliction of duty. Surely one of their first duties is to maintain their health and fitness so they can lead. We all have a mental picture of what a good leader should be-but we cannot even imagine a good sick leader.


1. Robert L. Veninga and James P. Spradley, The WorkIStrevs Connection: How to Cope with Job Burnout (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), 16.

2. A. Glenn Morton, Careers in Aerovpace (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: US Air Force ROTC. 1985), 103.

3. W. B. Cannon, Bodilv Changes in Pain, Hunger. Fear, and Rage (New York: Appleton, 1929), 27.

4. Dr Joan Borysenka, "Ways to Control Stress and Make It Work for You," U.S. News & World Report 96 (12 March 1984): 69-70.

5. James F. Fixx, The Complete Book of Running (New York: Random House, 1977), 29.

6. Veninga and Spradley, 112.

7. Fixx, 16.

8. Morton, 104.

Gerald David Nicklen is an author, a professional speaker, and a trainer/seminar leader in the field of holistic self-improvement.