Is Anxiety Sabotaging Your Leadership?
There’s something you can do about it.
Powerful leaders, who dominate their industries and command respect, sometimes hide in bathrooms where they endure frightening panic attacks.
This is exactly what happens to Harvey “Best Closer in the City” Specter in season five of the popular USA Network legal drama, Suits.
Harvey’s a powerful New York City lawyer who struggles to deal with his anxiety while trying to maintain his image of strength and success. His life and leadership improve when he faces his struggle head-on.
Anxiety is everywhere — with disorders affecting almost 20% of the US population. And we can probably safely assume that the other 80% of Americans suffer from, at least, occasional feelings of anxiety. Leaders are even more susceptible given the stress and responsibilities that come with their position.
Anxiety is not something we should ignore. And, because of the nature of leadership, this is even more true for those who lead.
Leadership Is a Creative Discipline
Leaders are not simply the people who outline the organization’s vision or who tell other people what to do. Leaders are people who create culture. This is what leadership is about. It’s automatic, and it doesn’t matter if a leader understands it. As leaders, what we say and do creates and shapes the surrounding culture.
Although leadership development often focuses on knowledge accumulation and management hacks, the central task of leadership is relational, emotional, and dynamic. We can sum up the central task of the leader in one sentence:
The ability to maintain a non-anxious presence in an anxious environment.
I’ll describe the differences between the two fundamental types of leaders:
The Anxious Leader
The anxious leader is reactive. He lives in a perpetual state of insecurity and takes his energy from the questions, concerns, and stress of his employees. His decisions are unclear, short-sighted, and ‘safe’. They’re mostly about appeasing people and keeping the ship afloat in what he feels is a constant and unpredictable storm.
The anxious leader is lead by his anxiety and lives in reaction to his environment. If the environment is anxious, he becomes anxious. He doesn’t have the ability to connect with others while remaining separate from them. In other words, he doesn’t lead.
The Non-Anxious Leader
The non-anxious leader does not react to the culture around her. She is her own person and pays attention to both her own emotional state and the emotional state of the people whom she leads. She can remain clear on her priorities and thoughts even while being inundated with the anxiety of those around her.
Edwin Friedman was a rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant. He wrote about the non-anxious leader is his 1997 book, A Failure of Nerve:
[The non-anxious leader is] someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”
The non-anxious leader maintains individuality and peace in the midst of anxious environments. She takes an active stance in life. She is not reactive. And she changes the surrounding environment through her example, her connection, and her non-anxious presence.
Becoming a Non-Anxious Leader
Gaining knowledge and learning the tools of management will help you lead, but they won’t make you a good leader. Good leaders are those who are aware of their own emotional states and are able to regulate them while staying connected to anxious individuals and anxiety-ridden environments.
It’s because good leaders are able to separate themselves from their environment and regulate the emotional processes that they are able to change the culture around them. While most people are simply reacting to, and taking on, the anxiety of their environments, the leader can offer change just through their peaceful presence.
If you just focus on the externals, your unregulated emotional state will sabotage any change you wish to make. As leaders, we’re always creating culture, and we’re mostly creating it automatically from who we are and how we operate.
Now, to one degree or another, we’re all anxious. And becoming a good leader does not mean becoming perfectly free of all anxiety. Becoming a good leader is (mostly) an inner journey that includes separating yourself from your environment and learning to notice and regulate your own emotional processes.
A Simple 4-Step Process for Developing Non-Anxious Leadership Skills:
- Become aware of your anxiety: You can’t fix what you’re ignoring. When you feel anxious, take note.
- Follow it where it leads you: Don’t fight the anxiety. Follow it. You can start by noticing what triggered it. Are you anxious about what others think about you? Are you anxious when the business doesn't look successful? From here, follow it deeper. Where does this come from?
- Do the hard work: This is where you need to take responsibility for the culture around you, and recognize all the ways in which you have let your anxiety sabotage your leadership. This is also the step where you must let go, get help, and begin to find your identity outside of the organization, team, or business.
- Practice the presence of peace: You’re ready to step into the fray and practice peace. Connect with others and remain at peace in the midst of their anxiety. This will not be easy. You will fail. But your example and your will to change can already begin to change the culture.
These steps need not be done alone. And, if you can access one, I highly recommend the help of a professional therapist. If not, a mature friend outside of your sphere of leadership can provide insight and lend a listening ear.
Anxiety is not a joke, and it’s not a character defect. If you need help, get help.
Your Anxiety Can Make You an Exceptional Leader
What was sabotaging you is exactly what can make you an exceptional leader. Working through your anxiety will help you become self-aware and able to regulate your emotional state — the exact traits of an effective, non-anxious leader.
This is freeing because, although it’s tiresome work and many leaders will ignore it, it’s a fast track to leadership effectiveness. It doesn’t (necessarily) cost anything and you don’t (necessarily) need to read anything. You have what you need to grow — it’s just about accepting it and doing the hard work.
The effective leaders of the future will not be those who are the most widely read, they will not be those with the most advanced degrees, and they will not be the most charismatic. They will be those who, by putting themselves through the fires of introspection and growth, become, themselves, a non-anxious presence.
Leadership is difficult and frustrating when we don’t understand that it’s relational, emotional, and dynamic. Our ability to self-regulate and remain separated from our environment defines the leader we will be — either an anxious leader or a non-anxious leader.
- Anxious leaders are reactive. They receive their energy from the environments and people that they lead.
- Non-anxious leaders are active. They maintain a non-anxious presence in their environment. They can do this even in the most anxious environments because of their ability to self-regulate and keep a strong self-identity.
Those who wish to take the inner journey to become good leaders will find that although it’s tiresome work, it’s the path to truly effective and fulfilling leadership. If you’d like to become a non-anxious leader, try this:
- Become aware of your anxiety.
- Follow it where it leads you.
- Do the hard work of addressing it (and get help).
- Practice the presence of peace.*
*When you fail at step 4, you can take the opportunity to go back to step 1: become aware of your anxiety at the moment where you failed to practice peace. And the process continues on.
The future of leadership belongs to those who are aware of their own anxiety and who address it — becoming active examples of change in the midst of their companies, organizations, and cultures.