The secret stress sauce: How the world’s top CEOs cope with pressure

The secret stress sauce: How the world’s top CEOs cope with pressure

/ 02:03 AM March 25, 2024

secret tools to become a more effective (and ruthless


I will share many practical steps, tips and tricks for coping better with stress, high pressure and even anxiety. I will include personal experiences, best practices we teach to our clients, and examples from other high-profile CEOs and famous business owners.

Expect the pressure

There will be pressure if you are going for big goals in a competitive business environment. It is a no-brainer. To expect anything else is foolish. Look at pressure as a positive thing. It gets things done. As Walt Disney said, “Everyone needs pressure to perform at their best. The best way to get many things done is to be under much pressure to pull them off.” So, first of all, reassess your mindset about pressure: It is a good thing.


Why is stress bad in itself? It is not. However, most CEOs and business leaders do not handle stress well, and it impacts their health and personal relationships and can lead to irreparable damage in both of these fields. Remember: business is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it can always bounce back. But your personal relationships and your health are most often balls made of glass—they shatter when you drop them.


The ‘calm’ state—your new state of ‘normal’

One thing most business leaders can learn from Richard Branson, the multibillionaire founder of the Virgin Group, is that he virtually never loses his cool. He is calm and composed, even in very challenging situations. Your calm state should be your normal state.

In my entire business experience, this is rarely the case for a lot of high-flying CEOs and wealthy business owners. They blow their top a lot. Try to minimize the fluctuations of your temper as much as you can and aim for ‘calm’ as your new state of normal. Your goal should be to stay in that state—and return to it—as much as possible. This new intention alone will work wonders for your stress levels.


I have written about meditation in other publications, so I will not go into detail here. Twenty minutes a day of whatever meditation will work wonders for you. Why? Because it allows you to cleanse the mind and return to that calm state, your new normal. There are a million ways to meditate, hundreds of apps and thousands of courses. Pick one and run with it.

Make this a daily practice. Some top CEOs and billionaire entrepreneurs meditate for 20 minutes twice a day, and some even longer. Start somewhere and find out what works for you.

I meditate daily and for me, this is as important as exercise. Sometimes, I even meditate for an hour or an hour and a half on the weekends if I need to. It is your brain’s way of taking the trash out and keeping your mental palace clean.

Breathing—the secret trick

Stephen Schwarzman, the American self-made multibillionaire chair and CEO of Blackstone Group, uses breathing to stay calm under pressure. Breathing is an excellent tool. The following technique comes from freediving. I am friends with and have advised the world’s most decorated, record-breaking freediver, Alexey Molchanov. Freediving is all about keeping calm under pressure and mastering your breathing. You can use a simple technique through your lips, out through your nose. Count five on the inhale and 10 on the exhale. Do that three times and you will feel instant relief. Try it!


You will also be doing a lot for your health because science has shown that lung function is a significant predictor of longevity.

How to avoid substance abuse or addiction

Alcohol, the taboo topic: A lot of top CEOs or business owners drink, do cocaine, or engage in some substance abuse. Having worked with CEOs and ultra high-net worth business owners around the planet and across many different cultures, I can safely say that this is a problem for most.

A lot of top CEOs I know and a lot of high-net worth individuals who own businesses turn to some form of substance abuse to cope with stress, pressure and anxiety. Two of my best friends are functioning alcoholics. Many business leaders turn to alcohol or substance abuse to get things done and reduce their stress.

One of our clients, a wealthy business owner in the US with a billion-dollar conglomerate under his wings, has one guy whose sole purpose is to keep his alcohol blood level constant. He uses vodka so it cannot be easily detected and mixes it with water or tea.

The problem with substance abuse: you need higher and higher levels of dosage to deliver the same effects. And the effects on your body are apparent. Do you want to be rich and successful while your body disintegrates? No, I didn’t think so. Neither do I.

How to eat the s … sandwich

The truth is any goal worth achieving comes with a massive sh.. sandwich you must eat. There is no way around that. You have to find what works for you to reduce stress and stay in the “calm” state more often than not.

Exercise is another excellent tool for many. Branson, for example, loves to kite-surf, as do I. However, it can also cause you a lot of stress if you force yourself too hard. I am hyperactive and energetic, so I must do sports six times a week. Otherwise, my output goes down.

However, it depends on your energy levels. One of my employees approached me the other day and asked if I recommended working out six times a week for him to get his energy up. I said, “No, because you have to become the best version of yourself and not copy others. If you are generally on a lower energy level (and he is), maybe just two to three times a week is fine for you.”

The secret song

Marconi Union “Weightless”: It has been shown to reduce stress levels by over 63 percent after people listen to it for a few minutes. The song is over eight minutes long. If I want a quick fix for my stress levels, reduce the pressure and have at most 10 minutes; that is what I do. Try it. Lie down, eyes closed, headphones on, bang! You’ll thank me later. By the way, I have no royalty agreements with the composers. The song just works.

Other famous examples

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, begins his day early, reportedly waking up at 3:45 a.m. to exercise, which he finds essential for stress management. He also values the importance of being in nature, often spending part of his weekends at national parks or outdoor spaces.

Warren Buffett attributes part of his success and ability to handle stress to his love of playing the ukulele. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, emphasizes the importance of balance and disconnecting from technology to manage stress. He tries to limit his screen time outside of work and spends his free time with his family or engaging in hobbies that do not involve technology, such as reading nondigital books or playing cricket.

Remember: use others as examples to inspire you, but always try out what works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. I also always advise our clients to create checklists for everything that matters and that they do repeatedly. Create a checklist for your best stress-coping technique and have it ready! INQ

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Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: or email [email protected].


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