How Do We Lead Successfully in an Age of Anxiety?

While I’m sitting in the welcome warmth of a long-wished for sunny spring day, I can’t help but feel the dark clouds of anxiety overwhelming the current political climate. Each day we awake to the news of bizarre behavior from our elected officials.  Regardless of your political stripes, there’s no denying our heightened concern for the strength and safety of the democratic institutions we hold so dear. 

This feeling of angst permeates on more personal levels as well. For organizational leaders, there’s an imperative to support their teams - allowing space to voice worries without causing paralysis or fear. Those of us with responsibility for generating income, while managing expenses, know that anxiety is never far away. Add to that the ambient worry accompanying external economic and political stability and you have a nasty brew of distraction, dis-ease and discomfort.

“You’re looking at the top and bottom lines, knowing that your best efforts, and that of your team, are required to keep the enterprise afloat.”

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US, affecting over 40 million adults, or 18% of the population. There is significant cost to individuals, families, employers and the general society.  Hard costs, such as medical care are estimated at over $50 billion, annually. Others like stress and strain on relationships, missed work, and a lack focus and hope can create a downward spiral that feels unending.  Left unchecked, ambient or acute anxiety corrodes our ability to interact optimally, make good decisions and perform at our peak. 

Therapists often counsel us to adopt a “containment approach” to dealing with negative feelings, allowing their expression, but bounding them in space and time.

Acknowledge the feeling, name it, sit with it for a moment or two, and then commit to moving on with your day, attending to the work and matters at hand.

In order to address anxiety, leaders must take the first step in dealing with it through recognition. We need to be attuned to its presence in our colleagues, in the environment and in ourselves. In the aftermath of a calamitous event we’re likely to be aware of the presence of anxiety.  But, what happens as time unfolds? We must remaining alert to signs that someone – or the entire team – is suffering.  Offer the time and space to address underlying issues, come up with a reasonable and actionable game plan, and balance the need to deliver with the importance of decompressing.  And remember, anxiety isn’t intellectual – it is physical and emotional.  Make sure, for yourself and your team that you are tending to your whole self.

On September 11, 2001, I was serving as one of two Managing Directors at an international non-governmental organization.  Our Executive Director was overseas on business, and was prevented from coming home for several days.  When I returned to the office shortly after the horrible events of that fateful day, I was faced with a staff of predominantly young, foreign-born professionals.  They were affected by the attack as deeply as any citizen; this was coupled with an added element of dashed expectations, as they had come to a country that represented something crucial and deep to them. The residue of the towers was still in the air, literally and metaphorically.  It was a period of great confusion and anxiety.

I learned a critical lesson during that time. You must resist the temptation to offer false cheer while communicating genuine optimism. Offer support based on a rock-solid understanding of the resilience of institutions, individuals and communities.  This is not an easy dance, but it is essential.   Point to what remains constant and clear.  Focus on what can be done now.  And tomorrow.  Rely on the satisfaction that comes from meaningful work. And, keep social media consumption to a reasonable level so that, among other things, you don’t add FOMO to the list of concerns that distract and dismay.

Whether you are dealing with worries about funding, lay-offs, fake news, physical security or other threats/challenges, the key is to acknowledge concerns, create a space for them to be aired, contain them and offer tangible plans and practices that can help you – individually and collectively – put one foot in front of the other.

As stated in the March 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine, by reporter Jesse Singal, “modern life needs to do a better job of connecting people to one another, and encouraging them to adopt the sorts of goals and outlooks that will make them happy.”   It may seem like a simple task for those charged with carrying out your organization’s mission and goals, but is essential in our current age of anxiety.

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