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  • Writer's pictureBrent Stromwall

RARE Leadership, part 2 - Becoming Overwhelmed

Leaders continue to question which is more important, relationships or results. According to a survey of 60,000 employees by James Zenger, leaders who balanced their approach of focusing equally on relationships and results were considered “great” 72% of the time. My experience has helped me learn this as well: Keeping relationships bigger than problems is essential to create and nurture a healthy team and organization. According to Zenger’s research solving problems is one of the top 3 traits of a great leader.[1] How you react to problems determines how truly great you and your team are.

One of my clients (I’ll call him Jason) became overwhelmed during a leadership team session in which the team was creating the goals and plans for the next quarter. Jason felt that the others were signing up for way too much. This triggered him and he stated (rather emphatically), “We have to stop! We won’t get all of this done, and I am not willing to NOT take care of our clients!” Jason became overwhelmed as he perceived this list of goals as a huge problem. The result of this outburst: the rest of his leadership team clammed up (joy and trust were lost), the discussion stopped, and the team wanted to just end the meeting.

A growing sense of overwhelm can cause any person to “get triggered.” We have all felt it at times. Likely, you have said something like “My to-do list is too long,” or “I simply don’t have enough time in the day (or week),” said “I just don’t get it,” “We are heading in the wrong direction,” or asked, “When am I going to get all this done?” These are yellow-flag statements.

Overwhelm comes from the root word “whelm” which means to submerge or engulf[2]. When this sense of being submerged becomes too great for your mind and soul, you are on the path of getting triggered. Your likely reaction to this trigger is to focus on either escaping or fixing the problem. This is an innate way your brain reacts to protect you. You probably want to yell “No more!” You can feel like lashing out or attacking someone close to you. You might imagine running to the mountains - rejecting all responsibility. You might want to ignore everything and go hide in your closet.

Leaders who want their teams to excel simply must keep relationships bigger than problems. Drs. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder in their book, Rare Leadership, define leadership as “producing and maintaining full engagement from our group in what matters.”[3] While management is the efficient accomplishment of tasks, leadership is a whole different concept. Leadership is not about efficiency, performance, or getting the task done. It’s about building a “strong repertoire of positive relational habits that produce trust, joy and engagement.”[4] The outcome is a team that wants to be together (joy: they’re glad to be together) and work together on the common goals of the team – whatever they may be (what matters). When working in joy, people and teams will have their greatest impact. [See Leadership vs Management]

Trust as an essential characteristic of a unified leadership team is not a new concept. Patrick Lencioni says that “Members of a truly cohesive team must trust one another” and provides several steps for building trust in his book, The Advantage.[5] While certainly valuable, trust will grow only as long as everyone keeps relationships bigger than problems. No matter how many trust-building exercises you go through with your team, however, as soon as you lash out or go on a tirade trust is not just eroded, it is destroyed. Leaders undermine their own success by allowing the problem to become bigger than the relationship.

I see this in leadership teams often: When a member of the team is triggered by a problem and they (unknowingly) allow the problem to become bigger to them than the relationships with those around them, they lash out in some unpredictable – even irrational – manner. Others on the team aren’t sure how to respond. They become tentative and reserved (Jason lost their trust). They don’t want to be together with this person anymore (they’ve lost their joy). Productive conversation stops and the team is no longer working together cohesively (no more engagement).

The key to keeping relationships bigger than problems? Quite simply – and I don’t mean to offend your intelligence – the key is: Remain relational. Sounds easy, yet there is a lot to it. (Check out: Part 3 - Relational Circuits)


I have to give credit for most of my insight to my friend and mentor Barbara Moon, who patiently invests in me weekly (using her book, Joy-filled Relationships) and ad-hoc Q&A with me via text messages, and from the book, Rare Leadership, by Drs. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder.

[1] John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman, and Scott K. Edinger, Harvard Business Review, October 2011 [2] Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “overwhelm,” Accessed July 15, 2020, [3] Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership – 4 Uncommon Habits for increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016) 20 [4] Warner and Wilder, Rare Leadership, 22 [5] Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 27

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