How Your Anxiety Can Make You a Better Leader

Remember, if you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you. You are okay. You will be okay. You are a better person, and a better leader because of this. You can lead with, and through, anxiety.
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Businessman looking out of office over city
Businessman looking out of office over city

I can do it. I know I can do it. I do it every day.

Wait, do I feel nauseous? Do I have a stomach bug? Oh, God, if I have a stomach bug I am going to be laid up for a week. I have so much to do. Am I going to be sick? Will I miss the meeting today?

What will they think of me when I miss that meeting? I can't miss that meeting. Yes, I definitely can't miss that meeting. Maybe I need to take care of myself. Okay, you're getting anxious. Are my hands cold? Is this a panic attack? No, not now, please please not now, I can't handle this right now. Okay, you know you're getting anxious.

You've learned about this. The doctor -- he says to name it. Okay, no, you aren't anxious - because you've beaten this thing remember? You felt pretty good yesterday I thought. Do I need medication? Remember the breathing advice? You can do that. Breathe. I can't breathe. Why can't I breathe? Wait, but I feel really tired. Is it normal to feel this tired? I need coffee. Will coffee make me sick? Maybe I am getting sick. Should I go to the doctor? I have to be okay. I have to. I am fine.

You are fine. I have to get my son up, I have to help with the morning routines. I have a big speech today. I have to be okay. I have to catch a flight. Act like you're okay. It's sunny out. Look, someone is out running. They're happy. You need to be happy. You can be happy. You can be carefree. Why am I not like them?

Okay, breathe. You can do this. You can do this. Just get in the shower.

That is an underestimated account of my typical thought pattern before I even get into the shower for the day. Some days are better than others.

About five years ago, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Currently, I am a trainer, consultant, instructor, and speaker and spend the vast majority of my time as the relatively unwilling center of attention. And, I love my work. And, I think I am pretty good at it.

The best way I've heard GAD described is the intense, gripping fear of something that has never and will never exist.

Now, this is not a post about what not to say to someone with anxiety. This has already been brilliantly written about.

But, let me be very clear, if you ever tell me to "calm down," "push through," or to "take some time for myself," when you come to me with a broken ankle, I reserve the right to tell you to, "just walk it off."

I decided to write this more personal post after many recent encounters with college students and professional colleagues who silently battle anxiety and are (or are aspiring to be) in highly visible leadership positions.

If nothing else, I am writing to emphatically say, "Yes, you can do it. You can lead others through and with anxiety." And in my opinion, your anxiety can help you become a better leader.

These are the five lessons I've learned about leading with and through anxiety.

1. Talk About It, Often

How often have you been around someone on crutches who doesn't talk about it? Rarely. But for some reason, as people and especially leaders with anxiety we keep it to ourselves. This is the last thing we need. And so, I talk about it -- whenever I can. First, talk about it with your doctor if you haven't. Ask them if its normal to feel the way you are feeling (if you are having mornings like mine described above, it may not be).

Talk about it with the people you lead. Talk about it with your spouse or partner. Talk about it with your friends.

Just the other day, a good friend of mine asked, "How's it been going, I haven't seen you in a while?" I responded, "Man, I've had some anxiety issues this past week, but I'm working through it."

I was recently facilitating an all-day training retreat, and I started having a panic attack. I calmly told the group to take a break. During the break, one of the attendees started small talk. She asked, "How are you doing?" I simply said, "I'm not feeling too well right now, I'm having some anxiety issues." She told me that she was feeling anxious too, and we ended up having a conversation about how to engage in new social situations. My panic attack subsided, and I realized it was precisely because I was helping someone else.

Developing authentic relationships is not only helpful for dealing with anxiety; it can make you a better leader.

2. Use Your Anxiety to Serve

Serving others has been one antidote to my anxiety. When I can really focus on someone else, their story, and what they need, my thoughts are directed toward another person's life and struggle. This is why I've chosen my career. No matter what someone else is going through (grief, loss, struggle, depression, low self-esteem), I have always been able to reflect on my own struggle with anxiety to support and relate to them.

When you share your struggle (whether it be with anxiety or something else) and carry others' burdens, you begin to develop an authentic sense of community and a small army dedicated to serving one another.

Again, not only is this powerful in working through anxiety; it can make you a better leader.

3. Become Friends With Your Anxiety

If you've been wondering (or annoyed) as to why I capitalize anxiety, it's because I've come to see my anxiety as the most loyal friend I wish I didn't have. It is a part of me, how I was made, and if I am committed to living an authentic life and being an authentic leader, I have to let it in, acknowledge it, and let it be known. When I start feeling my own tell-tale signs of Anxiety coming on, I start by saying, "Okay, I know you're back, now let's deal with you."

This non-judgmental "naming" of anxiety has been powerful.

Rinpoche once said, "The moment you see a raging river, you are already rising above it."

Being able to non-judgmentally see and experience your thoughts and feelings as they are happening is not just important for working through anxiety; it can make you a better leader.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Naming your thoughts, emotions, and feelings in a judgement-free way is called "mindfulness." I have realized that by knowing and acknowledging when I am getting anxious, I am actually being more present in the moment than I am at any point of the day. I highly recommend working through this workbook for a thorough introduction to the practice of mindfulness.

This practice has helped me become a better listener, a better speaker, and you guessed it, it can make you a better leader.

5. Remember, You Are Okay

Remember, if you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you. You are okay. You will be okay.

You are a better person, and a better leader because of this. You can lead with, and through, anxiety.

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If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, please contact your doctor.

If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.