How Stress Can Make You A Better Leader

With A Little Help From The Enneagram

In the summer of 2006 in Tucson, Arizona, Tom Boyle lifted a 3000-pound car off of a trapped cyclist. The world record for deadlifting is less than 1200 pounds.


According to the Enneagram, each person takes on certain traits when under stress. These traits can be both positive or negative, depending on how emotionally and mentally healthy you are at the time. Many people believe stress is only bad and therefore they want to try and eliminate all stress from their lives. While this is an understandable desire, the truth is that some stress is actually a good thing!


Though our stress-responses can be damaging, there are times when they can cause us to take needed action, protect ourselves and others, or even save our lives!


Stories or people lifting vehicles to save someone’s life are remarkable. But they also illustrate for us just how powerful something like stress can be. 


As a leader, stress in your life is a foregone conclusion. You will deal with stress at your job. Your boss will cause stress. Your coworkers will cause stress. Your direct reports will cause you stress. Your competition will cause you stress. There seems to be an almost endless amount of sources that cause you to stress!


Each Enneagram type deals with stress differently, and each can harness stress in either healthy or unhealthy ways. Here’s the general breakdown:


Ones

When Ones are stressed out, they can take on qualities of Fours. Negatively, they can become moody and choose to isolate themselves, believing that they are not special enough, or their team doesn’t deserve them. However, stress can also lead Ones to be creative problem solvers and to think outside of the normally rigid boundaries that they find themselves in. 


Ones’ key to utilizing stress: Don’t isolate yourself and don’t beat yourself up for having feelings. 


Twos

Twos take on characteristics of Eights when under stress. It takes a very long time to get them to the tipping point, but when a Two gets very, very stressed, they tend to snap aggressively at others. The normally sweet and helpful Two can verbally destroy someone, which puts everyone on edge immediately. However, Twos can harness stress for their good by allowing it to free them of their need to please others. One of the great characteristics of an Eight that Twos get to tap into is their ability to do what needs to be done, regardless of who’s watching or how much it costs them personally. 


Twos’ key to utilizing stress: Focus your aggression at a task, not at people.


Threes

When Threes come under stress, they take on qualities of Enneagram Nines. Where they are normally very decisive and strategic, under stress they may become much less sure of themselves and worry much more about upsetting people around them. But they can use stress to their advantage by using it as a warning sign for themselves. When Threes get stressed, one of the best things they can do is to step back from the situation, take a nap if possible, and try to get a more objective vantage point on what’s going on.


Threes’ key to utilizing stress: Step back and think about how what your doing could hurt or help other people’s success.


Fours

Under stress, Enneagram Fours take on traits of Twos. Where they are usually much more inward-focused, searching for truth and meaning in all things, when stressed, Fours may be tempted to let their values slide in order to just get the approval of those around them by becoming people pleasers. However, they can use stress to their advantage, remembering that it’s okay to take a break from the intensity of their day-to-day emotions and instead tend to the needs of others.


Fours’ key to utilizing stress: Focus on the emotions of others rather than your own. Sometimes people need help just sitting in their emotions.


Fives

When Fives are stressed, they go to 7. This means that the normally calm and calculated Five might suddenly become much more erratic and unpredictable. They’ll be tempted to “throw caution to the wind” and forget what they know to be true. Instead of this, Fives can use stress to their advantage by letting it give them energy to finally act on something they’ve so far only thought about and planned for. Stress can be a powerful motivator for Fives!


Fives’ key to utilizing stress: The clock is ticking. Use the fear of stress to finally act on that thing you’ve been planning.


Sixes

Sixes under stress take on qualities of Enneagram Threes. The negative side to this is that their anxiety can combine with the Three’s desire to look successful, and they’ll start spiraling downward, consumed with what they imagine other people must be thinking about them. Instead of this, Sixes can let stress be a motivator, much like with Fives, to actually get things done. Under stress, Sixes can access Threes’ amazing ability to check items off of the to-do list with remarkable efficiency.


Sixes’ key to utilizing stress: Get out the checklist. See how much you can get done while the pressure is on!


Sevens

When Sevens encounter stress, they take on traits of Ones. They might be tempted to become overly critical of the world and especially of themselves! But, when they can think clearly, Sevens can use stress to help them slow down and commit to a problem, rather than just getting through a problem in order to get on to something more fun. 


Sevens’ key to utilizing stress: This is your chance to show people you have a serious and professional side. Don’t run from the problem; fix it.


Eights

Under stress, Enneagram Eights take on characteristics of Fives. Where the Eight is normally the most confident and action-oriented person in the room, under stress, they are much slower to act because they don’t feel like they have enough information. They might even become judgmental towards those around them who know even less than they do. But when they understand the strength of Fives, Eights can use stress as an opportunity to slow down, gather all the relevant data, and then make an informed decision at a pace that everyone else can follow. 


Eights’ key to utilizing stress: Slow down, gather opinions, and be a team player. This is the space where you really gain followers.


Nines

Finally, Nines under stress take on qualities of Enneagram Sixes. This could manifest itself as intense anxiety and the loss of their usually-calm demeanor. But when they are in a healthy state, Nines can borrow some of the loyalty and wise planning of Sixes. So even if the worst thing happens, you can be ready for it.


Nine’s key to utilizing stress: Rather than trying to avoid the bad situations that could happen, prepare for them.


Minimize & Utilize 

Obviously, we want to minimize stress in our lives. Nothing wrong with that. But we also need to face the reality that we will never be completely rid of it. So, rather than hoping for something that will never happen, let’s focus on using stress to our advantage. It may not mean you’re lifting a car off of someone, but it might mean that you can lead and rise to the top in a situation where others are bogged down.