Leaders often define themselves by bold acts: a takeover, a corporate rescue. Success, though, is determined by a trait less obvious to outsiders — their ability to handle pressure.

Dennis Kozlowski told me recently that running Tyco, as the US industrial group expanded in the 1990s, was an “all-consuming, 365, 24/7 job”.

In the end, it did consume him. Mr Kozlowski went to jail in 2005 for looting nearly $100m from the company in bonuses not approved by Tyco’s board. His lifestyle was emblematic of an era of CEO excess that toppled over into scandal.

I interviewed Mr Kozlowski, now a free man, and three serving business leaders for a series of short films for the Financial Times about how they manage, personally and professionally, in the face of challenges. What unites them is an awareness that coping is a basic and unavoidable part of the job.

Marcela Sapone, co-founder of Hello Alfred, a start-up that offers concierge services to time-poor professionals, says the pressure she faces is often self-induced. It is based on a perception “that you are on a path to greatness and that you have to keep it up”. Stephen Hester, who piloted Royal Bank of Scotland through the aftermath of its near-collapse in 2008 and now runs UK insurer RSA, says taking pressure is “one of the attributes you probably need” to run a company.

But even carefully chosen leaders can crack. In 2011, the chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group stepped down temporarily suffering from exhaustion. In 2012, Akzo Nobel’s head had to take a break for fatigue: he had taken “a bit too much hay on his pitchfork”, the Dutch company said.

One way CEOs can offset potentially overwhelming pressure is by finding small ways to exercise control. When the job’s demands threaten to swamp her, Ms Sapone tries to “deal with whatever it is point by point, and look for the controllable things”.

Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, barely slept for the first 48 hours of Pfizer’s 2014 hostile bid approach. To make matters worse, Pfizer made its move as he arrived in Sydney for his grandson’s birthday. Mr Soriot was almost as far from headquarters as he could be. He coped in part by drawing on his scientific background. “I’m more analytical than emotional,” he says.

A second common theme is that business leaders need to locate what Mr Hester calls the “on-off switch”. When he took over RBS in 2008, it was unclear how bad the crisis would get. It was “impossible to have a starting plan, although you very quickly had to figure one out,” he says. As scrutiny intensified on his actions and personal life (complicated by the coincidental break-up of his marriage), Mr Hester had to cultivate “an ability to detach and switch off . . . in order for [my] decisions to be useful”.

All the leaders use outside pastimes as a safety valve. Ms Sapone practises bikram yoga; Mr Soriot, cycling or horseriding, though he clocked few miles during the Pfizer bid.

But Mr Kozlowski, sometimes pictured at the helm of his 1934 yacht Endeavour while running Tyco, hints at how hard it is to make time off count. “You were always thinking about the company, no matter what else you may be doing, on a tennis court, if you’re going for a run,” he told me. During his eight years in prison, he managed to offset the very different stresses of incarceration by becoming the jail’s “laundry tsar”, which granted him the distinctly un-CEO perks of a small wooden chair, where he could sit and read, and an 80-cent weekly stipend.

Mr Kozlowski now says the imperial CEO trappings that made him a target did not make him happy, even though “everybody that was working for me, staying at the homes I had, or crewing [the] boat” was. But the “earthquake” he went through has made him realise where he went wrong. His explanation, however self-serving, points to a paradox. To get to the top and stay there demands the same drive that, unchecked or unmonitored, can lead to mistakes, breakdown or even scandal.

Ms Sapone says she is haunted by the fear she may squander her “one shot” at success. “What you really viscerally don’t understand until you’ve gone down the path of building [a business] is that you’re in an ultra-marathon, and you don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

Oddly, her determination echoes Mr Kozlowski’s account of his early career, when he “had something to prove in business, that I could do as well as everybody else”. What he has belatedly realised is that having reached a certain level “I didn’t need to go on year after year after year”.

In short, being locked up has given him one key to ensuring that pressure does not end in personal disaster: know when enough is enough.

Watch the films at www.ft.com/pressure

Andrew Hill is author of Leadership in the Headlines: Insider Insights into How Leaders Lead

andrew.hill@ft.com

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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