Leading a team or an organization while experiencing anxiety can be a hell of a challenge.
A common thought pattern might sound something like: “I’m worried. I don’t know what to do next. I’m not sure how we’ll navigate this year, and… I can’t let my team see me like this.”
If that rings true in any way, know that you’re not alone.
Below you’ll find three simple ideas about understanding anxiety, dealing with it, and operating with it.
First let’s have a brief, very simplistic look at where anxiety comes from.
Where Anxiety Comes From
Anxiety is part of all of us, by the virtue of how we evolved.
Many generations ago, our ancestors would go out into the wilderness and hunt for food. Let’s say we had one tribesman who was fearful enough to be very cautious in the wilderness, and another who was brave and walked into the wilderness thinking they could easily overcome a bear, or tiger, or a wolf.
One of them had a lower probability of returning home if they did run into a dangerous animal. In case you’re guessing, that would be the fearless one.
So… with the fearless one now acting as bear lunch, the cautious one would come back and propagate.
[EB: And that my friends, is a short, very accurate lesson on history and evolution.]
By the virtue of genetic propagation, we’re predisposed to be cautious. We are wired to predict and avoid danger. It’s literally in our DNA, and at the core of what anxiety is.
It’s a feeling – a pattern of thought meant to protect you from possible harm.
Somewhere along the line, our brains learned to predict other dangers. Instead of looking out for dangerous animals, we now think about social status, financial stability, career progression, economic opportunities and dangers, what shareholders think, and so on.
It’s perfectly natural, and having this biological understanding of where anxiety comes from can be a game-changer.
overcoming anxiety in the moment
A common manifestation of anxious thinking is negative scenarios that spiral out of control. For example, one morning you’re looking at projections and things are not looking good for this year. So you start thinking: “How much of a runway do we actually have? What if we have to lay people off? What if we can’t make it to the end of the year? What if it’s my fault? What if I have to change careers at 45?” You get the idea.
Staying in this pattern of thinking fester doesn’t put you in a creative state of mind to solve problems.
There are many ways to deal with this moment. I’ll share one simple and actionable approach that works well for me and some of the clients I worked with.
The idea is to re-assert control of your thought process by hyper-focusing, bringing the timeline way back to the present moment, and taking very small, meaningful actions.
That might mean something as simple as organizing your desk. It might mean cleaning up your inbox. It might mean sending a meeting invitation or changing your environment by going out for an intentional 5-minute walk.
Tiny, meaningful, actions focused only on the present moment. This practice helps you pull back from a million possible future scenarios that will most likely never happen, breaks you out of inertia, and starts building momentum again.
How to practice leadership while experiencing anxiety
Anxiety impairs our judgement, scatters our focus, it can mess with our memory, as well as our decision making. All of those are mission-critical qualities of a good leader.
One powerful way to lead while experiencing anxiety is to lean into vulnerability and to share what’s happening for you.
Right away, you may think: “How can I be honest and open with my people in a way that it won’t make them anxious?”. Or you may think: “Maybe they’ll think less of me because I’m supposed to be the leader, and I’m supposed to be the one who can handle this.”
How much you choose to share with your team and how will depend on your level of comfort as well as the culture you created by the way you lead.
The reality is unless you are fantastic at compartmentalizing your feelings, your people easily pick up on your energy. It might manifest as being short in your answers, poor listening, distraction, or irritability.
Instead, here is an example of what leaning into vulnerability may sound like. Let’s imagine you’re starting a meeting, and you’ve had an anxious morning worrying about a new competitor that is going after your customers.
Opening the meeting with “I’m feeling anxious today” or “I haven’t really slept well last night” is one way to release tension, and for your people to see you as human. All it needs to be is sharing where you are right now, without adding unnecessary details.
Then, start by saying “Obviously, we lost a few clients recently, and there is some pressure on our sales. However, for the next hour, I would like us to put those feelings aside and focus on looking forward. Let’s scan the horizon for other opportunities that we may not have seen before”.
Being open helps you and the team acknowledge your feelings, and allows you to focus on positive next steps.
Dealing with anxiety as a leader is not easy. However, like any other aspect of leadership, it is a skill you can develop with practice and repetition. Please note: if you are experiencing anxiety on a chronic basis, make sure to talk to a mental health professional.
You may be surprised at what kind of performance you can unlock.