Leading with Anxiety


by Janine Davis

Anxiety is in the air. It’s palpable. Many of my client’s coaching sessions are, at their core, about how a Leader can get from point A to point B in the midst of feeling stopped in their tracks by anxiety. It’s almost as though they feel that they are not allowed to feel anxiety and be a professional concurrently. That they need to check it at the door when they enter the office, and function as though it doesn’t exist. Which is unreasonable. And impossible. At home, we are people. At work, we are people.

I’d like to propose that Leaders name it, own it and deal with it, versus trying to bury it, ignore it and control it. Because it can’t be controlled. Most Leaders can manage it most of the time. But invariably something will trigger you — maybe you just heard about another school shooting in the news, or your revenues took a sudden nosedive, or you heard that your Board is not happy with something you did recently. And, when that happens, you’ll tend to go to your worst place, which might be rigid, angry or fearful. The anxiety can express itself in the form of emotional outbursts, blaming others, a deep-seated mistrust of those around you, or it might send you on a rampage to enforce structure, rules and regulations.

When you feel anxiety, it’s natural to want to exert control. Anxiety is destabilizing. Control is one’s attempt to solidify a seemingly-unstable foundation. The problem is that attempts at exerting control are rarely effective. Quite the opposite. Generally, they result in resentment from your people, and a culture of fear that shuts down a company’s ability to thrive and innovate.

As a leader, you need to recognize when anxiety has its hands on the steering wheel, so you can avoid the negative ramifications of being its pawn. Let’s take an example. Let’s say, as a CEO, it’s part of your essential core — your identity — to be perceived as someone who creates constant growth. And let’s say over the past 6 months, your growth has been flat. This might spark such a profound internal anxiety in you that you simply can’t accept it. You blame your CRO, and shoot down every proposal she makes to turn sales around. In turn, the entire Sales organization becomes unmotivated, disengaged, and fearful about suggesting innovations. Which results in — you guessed it — continued flat sales.

Time for brass tacks. Let’s talk about what kinds of anxiety are out there, how to recognize signs of anxiety in yourself, and ways to manage it.

There are a few types of anxiety that might affect you, and it’s well documented that anxiety is at an all-time high right now. See if any of these strike home for you:

  • Dependence –Depending on others, though it can be a great gift, can also induce anxiety. What if they don’t come through? What if they don’t do it right? What if they don’t realize the importance of something? What if, as you scale, you delegate an area of responsibility, and the person taking over doesn’t realize the importance of that responsibility?
  • Annihilation — this sounds dramatic, but simply represents the fear of losing something which feels essential to survival — our reptilian brain might take the helm and create anxiety over perceived loss — losing a job, getting fired by the Board, running out of funding.
  • The State of the World — VUCA is an acronym drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, which describes the current state of things — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Information is overly-available and coming at us all from every angle. I can’t name one person who is excited to watch the news these days. It’s easy to absorb external terror in the form of anxiety.
  • Chronic/Complex PTSD — there are medical/chemical forms of anxiety, including complex PTSD (which can create a near-constant state of fight or flight).

The more anxiety you have (meaning, if it’s chronic versus circumstantial), the less likely you are to realize you have it. It’s just how things are for you. Here are some areas to be aware of, which might tip you off that you are living in a state of anxiety:

  • Body Stuff: hard to catch your breath, heart beating rapidly, throat constricted, poor sleep, adrenal bursts, feeling sick to your stomach, constant fidgeting, avoiding eye contact.
  • Mind Stuff: confusion, irritability, thoughts of failure and self-doubt, memory loss.

If you’re sitting there saying check, check and check, you’re probably thinking “now what?” You need to become attuned to those signals that anxiety is on deck, and then create practices to manage it. There is no single approach that works for all, but here are some ideas for you to experiment with:

  • Meditate — use Headspace, Insight Timer, or join a meditation group. Something as simple as closing your eyes for a few minutes in your office or a conference room might reset you.
  • Be in Nature — get outside, even if it’s just for a 10-minute walk.
  • Let Music Soothe the Savage Beast — close your eyes and put on some tunes that speak to your soul.
  • Find Your Tribe — hang out with a friend or colleague that you can be yourself around. Sometimes just being with someone you trust can get you out of your head.
  • Get Support — Get a Mentor, Advisor or Executive Coach to support you. Especially if you have chronic anxiety or complex PTSD, please seek a therapist. Somatic therapists in particular are very helpful with tools to manage anxiety.
  • Breathe — literally, just breathe. 5 counts in breath, 5 counts hold, 5 counts out breath. Rinse, repeat about 10 times.

Fear and anxiety paralyze innovation and growth. Human nature is to grow and evolve. Paralysis can only last so long. Simply giving voice to the anxiety opens up a path of movement. It’s a Coach’s job to help a Leader open up that path. It’s a Leader’s job to open up that path for their people.