Leaders Let Anxiety Be Their Friend
Randy Wolken, President & CEO

Anxiety is a natural part of being a leader. Whenever you are involved in high stakes decisions and high performance expectations, along with other people’s well-being, you are likely to feel anxious. It is inevitable. But, what do leaders do about this anxiety?

Traditionally, leaders are encouraged to calm down when they are anxious. However, science tells us that this is actually not the course of action we should take because it results in an anxiety loop where we get anxious about being anxious—and it only gets worse. Instead, experts say we need to change our story so that we can be excited. Excitement is a positive state where we see what is in front of us as an opportunity. The story of what can occur is in our head. If we work at it, we can change the story and move from anxiety to excitement. It’s what leaders must do to be successful.

Let me give you an example. I have a board meeting coming up. There are several important things I want to achieve during this meeting. Plus, these are my bosses – all 30 of them. I want to please them and get it right. The stakes are high. The story in my head is imagining all the ways the meeting could go wrong. I start getting anxious and tell myself to calm down. This only makes me more anxious. As you can see, this is not going to end well. But, how can I change this? I can shift my thinking.

Instead of thinking of all that could go wrong, I must begin to imagine the opportunity that the board meeting offers. From there, I need to start gathering strategies and actions that will likely produce good outcomes. This will help me feel more excited about spending the meeting with people I respect and admire for their insights and talent. I’ll remember I have an amazing team to help us accomplish our tasks. Now I am excited about the meeting. This positivity and excitement feeds upon itself reinforcing my actions. I am able to show up to the meeting with positive energy. As you can see, anxiety or excitement are states of being that result from perspective. If I see positive opportunities, I get excited and it helps me perform better. If I see negative outcomes, it makes me anxious and I perform worse. It is all in my viewing of the future that sets the stage for the best outcomes.

As a leader, how do you respond to anxiety? Do you try to “calm down” or do you reorient your thinking to see the opportunities? When others come to you with their anxieties, do you help them see the opportunities so they can get excited? What situations have you experienced that you can share with others to help them understand that shifting their perspective is the best strategy?

As leaders, we can be so helpful to others when they are anxious. One of the best things we can do is demonstrate how to effectively deal with our own anxiety – and then share our experiences with those we work with. Leadership is an action. When we shift from anxiety to excitement we can get the best outcomes for all to see.