This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
Hell Week is the infamous five-day period of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training when Navy SEAL candidates engage in physical training for at least 20 hours a day, often carrying a heavy boat over their heads on virtually no sleep, and being continuously cold and wet from Sunday evening until Friday night. It’s no wonder only 11% of candidates ever make it past this week. It is one of the most effective ways to determine how capable and dedicated a Navy SEAL is to serving.
As horrible as Hell Week sounds, there is a useful and fascinating dynamic at work, acting as the catalyst for SEAL trainees who do survive, to go on and become among fiercest and most capable warriors on the planet. What most would call harmful, this dynamic could be more accurately characterized as hormesis.
Hormesis is the idea that a small enough dose of a harmful stimulus can have the opposite effect of a higher dose. It’s what happens when you get immunized at the doctor’s office. It’s what happens when you feel the burn at the gym. It’s what people mean when they say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And it’s why a little bit of stress is useful, but a lot can kill you.
Most people run away at the first sign of stress. When things get tense, they run towards comfort to ease the pressure. They eat comfort food, download apps, quit caffeine, and attend meditation retreats to reduce the stress. Yes, stress in large quantities can have some serious detrimental effects. But not all stress is bad. What happens when you add a “eu,” as in “euphoria,” to our stress?
The type of stress we all know and hate is known as distress. But eustress? That’s a stress we all should pursue. The term eustress was coined in the mid-20th century but has become mainstream since its use in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek in 2007. Eu- is a Greek prefix for “healthy,” which would mean that eustress is, of course, healthy stress— the key ingredient for our hormetic response. This can be applied in any context, but for our purposes, lets look at it from organizational and individual leadership perspectives.
On an organizational level, the hustle and bustle of a full-service restaurant is a natural pressure cooker. It has a way of revealing an individual’s true nature when things inevitably go awry. When a server is thrown into the fire for the first time on a hectic Friday night, or when a line cook is tasked with preparing dozens of orders during the lunch rush, it’s often not an effective learning experience for them. But these moments can be particularly instructive for you as the leader. Similar to Navy SEALS, you can learn a lot about your team by subjecting them to small but intense doses of stress. And despite the unappealing nature of eustress, your team will grow stronger for them.
On an individual level, follow what I call Cooks’ Law. NFL wide receiver Brandin Cooks made a name for himself by persistently subjecting himself to the toughest challenges. Once thought to be too small to play football professionally, he used the hormetic power of eustress to prove to everyone that he could not only compete with, but outplay the best competition. In tryouts, he would always make sure to be matched up against the best defensive players. He knew that the coaches would see him on film, time and time again, dominating his opponents. He proved that by always putting himself in the toughest of situations, he would be ready to achieve his NFL dreams.
As an aspiring leader, heading towards discomfort must be your first and only priority. Before you can lead anyone, any project, or anything, there are certain rites of passage you must undergo in order to build character, trust, and credibility. You don’t always have to go through Hell Week or be a server at a busy restaurant on Friday night. But you do have to make it a point to step out of your comfort zone at every opportunity. By eustressing yourself, you’ll prove to your superiors you have what it takes to be a leader, your subordinates that you have what it takes to lead them, and yourself that you are capable of taking on and conquering the toughest challenges ahead of you.
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.