Be a Step-Down Leader: A Radical, New Paradigm for Leading in Anxious Times
Updated: Apr 27
Your primary job as a leader – in your family, community, or career – is to lower anxiety. Period.
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 Our continued reliance on these outdated frameworks explains why rates of employee engagement remain at appallingly low levels.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. It can even help us understand the embarrassing void of leadership at almost every level of government right now. 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. Our very lives and livelihoods are threatened by a microscopic organism whose only purpose is to replicate itself at our expense. 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 you. 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.