Anxiety can devastate your leadership and your organization, or you can learn to use it to your advantage, explains Doug Dickerson
Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.Charles Spurgeon
In his book Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger shares how when a herd of impala in the brutal African heat find a watering hole they rush to drink, crowding in, fearful of not getting enough water to sustain them. Suddenly, one impala raises his head in high alert. Immediately every other impala stops drinking and stands at attention. At that moment, every impala has a life-or-death decision to make: Is this a lion or not?
If there is a lion lurking near that spot and they don’t run, they become lion lunch. If there’s no lion lurking near the hole and they do run, they lose their place at the watering hole and could die of thirst.
If there is a lion and they run, or if there is no lion and they don’t run, they live another day. But all that matters is: Is that a lion or not? Everything in their impala being is focused on making that crucial life-or-death decision. Just like they do every day. Numerous times a day.
Part of what helps the impala make that decision is the herd energy, the animal anxiety that permeates the group and causes them to share listening, hearing, and deciding together.
Over the course of the past few years, no doubt you’ve experienced a lot of anxiety. And hopefully, along the way, you’ve learned from it as well.
Here’s another observation from Bolsinger about anxiety. He writes, “Anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it’s a creaturely thing. It just is. We feel anxious when reacting to a threat, whether real or imagined. Sometimes the anxiety is a gift that tells us that something bad is threatening the clan.” Think “mama bear” parental instincts.
And so, for all the desire to rid ourselves of anxiety, there is a greater purpose to discover. Here are a few questions for your consideration.
Are You Basing Decisions on Fear or Facts?
As a leader, you need to be grounded in facts when making decisions. When fearful and anxious, we tend to be more reactionary than normal. In those moments, assess the threat – perceived or real – and then proceed.
Is There Really a Threat or Is It Something Made Up?
It could be that the anxiety you feel is an actual threat that you need to deal with. But nothing could be worse for the health of your organization than wasting time and energy responding to a threat that was only the by-product of someone’s overactive imagination.
Your leadership instincts are important, and knowing how anxiety impacts leadership is as well. You will lead people with varying degrees of anxiety, and how they deal with it will also vary.
Here is a truth you need to remember – people who are overly anxious do not always make the best decisions.
When facing high levels of anxiety, Bolsinger says that people will react in one of three ways: we fight, we flee, we freeze. We turn on each other instead of working together. We run from danger and leave the others to fight the lions alone. Or we capitulate and allow the herd to be overrun.
Lean In Moment
Anxiety can devastate your leadership and your organization, or you can learn to use it to your advantage. But one thing is unavoidable as a leader – you will deal with it. And in those moments when it really counts and so much is on the line, you will need to determine whether it’s a lion or not.
These are critical decisions that must be made, and it’s important for your leadership and your team to get it right.
In our high-anxiety moments as leaders, much is riding on the decision-making process we engage in. As a leader, what are the one or two things that you can do to instill confidence and clarity in the moment? Allow me to offer a few suggestions.
We’ve heard this statement so much that sometimes I wonder if the true effect of it is lost on us. So what does staying calm really mean for you and me as leaders? Bolsinger defines it this way: “To stay calm is to be so aware of yourself that your response to the situation is not to the anxiety of the people around you but to the actual issue at hand.” And it’s when you are leading on this level that you know you are effective. When your actions as a leader do not raise or contribute to the level of anxiety of those around you, then you know you have a calming effect as a leader.
As a leader, you don’t want to make threats – whether real or perceived – any worse. You want to be able to lead your people with a steady hand and laser-like focus. This can only happen when you are calm on the inside and out.
Make Better Decisions
An obvious by-product of staying calm is your ability to make better decisions. Bolsinger’s perspective is: “For leaders, the point of calming down is not to feel better; it’s to make better decisions. It’s to make the best decisions for furthering the mission. When people are too hot, they don’t.”
And this is the point we must remember; anxiety leads to poor decision-making. Whether that’s coming from the people you lead or you as the leader, it can derail the mission because bad decisions were made. Making good decisions is not about being lucky. It’s a result of smart, intuitive leadership developed over time and experience.
In one way or another, anxiety is going to impact your leadership. When it does, you can channel that energy into something positive, lead from a place of calm and inner strength, make better decisions, and lead your team forward.