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  • Darren Gold

A Guide for Leading in Anxious Times

Your primary job as a leader – in your family, community, or career – is to lower anxiety. Period.

Your primary job as a leader – in your family, community, or career – is to lower anxiety. Period.


If there is one theme from the past week that is emerging for me, it is that we are living in highly anxious times. This is perhaps unsurprising. We are entering the third year of a global pandemic that has disrupted basic patterns of living. The economy, while in some ways strong, is showing signs of fragility. And last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly waged war against Ukraine, an unprovoked act reminiscent of the aggression that led to and characterized much of World War II.


The recent geopolitical shocks bring to mind a story told by Gabor Mate, a physician, and author who has contributed greatly to our understanding of childhood development, trauma, and addiction. Born into a Jewish family in January 1944 in Budapest Hungary, just before the German invasion of that country, Gabor’s first few months were spent incessantly crying. His mother called the local pediatrician asking him to come to her home and help with the baby. The doctor replied, “Yes, I will come. But you must know that all the Jewish babies are crying right now.” The overwhelming anxiety of the Jewish parents anticipating their own annihilation was being transmuted to their children.


Almost two years ago, roughly two months into our collective quarantine, I wrote a piece about anxiety. I reread it in preparation for this week’s email. It is perhaps more relevant today than ever. So I decided to reprint it, with slight edits, below. I hope that it serves as a useful guide for leading in anxious times. Here it is.


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Traditional models of leadership focus on techniques to motivate, influence, and change people. These models are ineffective and broken. Our continued reliance on these outdated frameworks explains why rates of employee engagement remain at appallingly low levels. It accounts for the fact that “change” programs fail at a shockingly high rate. And it indicates why many families and intimate personal relationships are dysfunctional. The attempt to change others, which is at the core of the current leadership paradigm, is the source of most ineffectiveness in life. And yet, we cling to the current theories because they allow us to avoid responsibility and blame others. This is the big racket we are collectively running.


There is a more paradoxical, systemic model of leadership that barely gets any attention, partly because it is non-linear and thus harder to grok. This theory was first fully articulated by the brilliant writer Edwin Friedman in his 1995 book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (by the way, this is the #1 book I recommend to leaders I am working with). This model argues that it is the leader’s focus on self that matters most, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Principally, it is about the leader being self-differentiated, which means being non-anxious, non-reactive, and self-defined. It is about a leader being able to be connected while remaining separate. To have a spine. To care for people enough such that the main concern is to not deprive them of the responsibility for their own maturity and growth, rather than to simply make them feel better.


Above all, this model of self-differentiated leadership is about reducing chronic anxiety. You see, chronic anxiety is toxic. It is an emotional field – invisible in nature, but nonetheless extremely powerful – like gravity or electromagnetic energy. According to field theory, the force of the field has more power to shape the properties of a particular entity within that field than do the innate characteristics of the entity itself. This is what happens in a highly anxious family, organization, society, or any human system. Anxiety massively compromises the brain’s ability to function. It causes the brain to narrow its focus to that which is potentially dangerous. As a result, we lose our ability to be creative, see possibility, self-regulate, be decisive, and be analytical. We play not to lose rather than play to win. We lose our nerve at the exact time we need it the most.


We are currently in a period of extremely heightened anxiety. These times call for a different kind of leadership. A new paradigm. Friedman offered the analogy of the electrical transformer to illustrate this. Household electrical current in the United States is generally 110 volts, but it is transported at 11,000 volts. As a result, a step-down transformer is needed to convert the higher voltage current being transported to the lower voltage needed for household use.


Anxiety is like electricity. Too much of it and you’ll get electrocuted. Leaders have the opportunity to play the role of the step-down transformer – to reduce levels of anxiety so that people can be at their best (by the way, this is what people are unknowingly talking about when they speak about psychological safety). They do this not by striving for consensus but by being decisive and self-assured. By their mere non-anxious, non-reactive presence, they can lower the anxiety within the emotional field of the system they lead. Here’s how Friedman explains it.


…it is also possible to be a step-down transformer – to function in such a way that you let the current go through you without zapping you or fusing you to the rest of the circuit. This is not easy, and yet it is within the capability of most leaders. It has far more to do with their presence than with their actions. Part of the difficulty in making the conceptual leap from action to presence is that all leaders, parents, or presidents have been trained to do something – that is, to fix it…. To the extent that leaders and consultants can maintain a non-anxious presence in a highly energized anxiety field, they can have the same effects on that field that transformers have in an electrical circuit. Transformers have no moving parts. They reduce the potential in a field by the nature of their own presence and being; they are in effect a field themselves. This is not a matter of “breaking a circuit;” it requires staying in touch without getting “zapped.” Anyone can remain non-anxious if they also try to be non-present. The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously.


You are undoubtedly leading an anxious system right now. It could be your team at work, your family, or just yourself. The question is: are you being a step-down leader? When you join a Zoom call, do you lower or raise the level of anxiety in the group? If you want to lead effectively, now more than ever you need to focus on yourself. Forget about those you lead. That’s of course extreme. But you get my point. Concentrate on cultivating your own capacity for self-regulation. Stay connected to your family and your team. But do so without losing your strong sense of self. The operative word for the next few weeks and months is maturity. Step up by stepping down. There’s a lot at stake right now. Don’t lose your nerve.


Tuesday Tips:

  1. I first heard Gabor Mate tell this story in a wonderful podcast interview with Tim Ferris. I highly recommend it as well as Mate’s book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

  2. This New York Times Magazine interview of Yale cognitive scientist and professor of the school’s popular Psychology and the Good Life course, “Yale’s Happiness Professor Says Anxiety Is Destroying Her Students,” is worth reading.

  3. This is a wonderful guest essay, “My Synagogue Was Attacked but I will Never Stop Welcoming the Stranger,” by Charlie Cytron-Walker, Rabbi of Congregation Beth-Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

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