Most of us assume that anxiety and strong leadership are incompatible.
But entrepreneur and former mental health advisor Morra Aarons-Mele says that’s a misconception. “I am convinced that anxiety is baked into effective leadership,” she writes in The Anxious Achiever. “It doesn’t matter if you have a fancy title and are managing thousands of people or you’re launching a tiny startup on a shoestring – leadership comes with a heightened set of pressures and responsibilities … If you’re invested in the work, you’re going to experience some anxiety.”
Ms. Aarons-Mele asked Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn how many of the legendary leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill she has studied dealt with anxiety and depression. “The vast majority,” was the answer. Even if not prone to anxiety, in pivotal moments they could be plunged into gales of worry and fear.
So assume you are not above it. Perhaps it’s your boss that triggers the anxiety, or certain assignments or aspects of your job, or a colleague whose e-mail routinely sets you off. Ms. Aarons-Mele recommends stopping three times a day to examine how you’re feeling – name the emotion, and think about what people or situations triggered those feelings. Then work at developing coping mechanisms to help you retain your balance.
Often your mood is influenced by self-talk, which reflects a negative bias against yourself. Psychiatrist Aaron Beck calls it a “systemic error” in thought patterns. Everything that happened to you – past, present and future – is viewed through a negative lens that traces back to childhood. You expect the worst to happen and blame yourself.
Ms. Aarons-Mele will often stop what she is doing when negative self-talk grips her and cheerfully say, “Hi mom!” Or she’ll think back to a particular critical boss and tell him that just because his retained negativism is hounding her right now doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes she’ll reflect that the voice is trying to protect her, and thank it (but also tell it that she doesn’t need such heavy protection any more).
You’re an adult now. You have agency and awareness. “You are finally able to distance yourself from those old patterns,” she says.
Perfectionism can carry the added burden of anxiety. Ms. Aarons-Mele asks you to imagine a life in which you achieve at the same high levels as currently without all the angst that comes with perfectionism.
For some people, a fear of mingling with others, making small talk, can be overwhelming. She notes that many ambitious people suffer from social anxiety, which stems from fear of being judged or rejected. Again, you have to fight back because the narrator is unreliable.
Magic words can help you sell your ideas, your product and yourself
Ms. Aarons-Mele says over the years the idea of being a leader has become conflated with the idea of being a performer. “We need to remember that a leader’s primary role is not to entertain an audience. It is to communicate effectively with their team,” she writes. That means articulating ideas and instructions in a way people can understand. Even when addressing groups, nobody is expecting you to be a world-class orator.
Despite different treatments, Ms. Aarons-Mele has been unable to become anxiety-free. And that’s okay because if anxiety can be a curse it can also be a gift. Anxious achievers are great at planning. They tend to be attuned and empathetic because of their anxiety of what people are thinking. They work hard and prepare. They ask others for help as they know they can’t do it alone. “I credit much of my success to my anxiety,” she says.
- Leadership coach Gregg Vanourek says we can flip between four approaches in our working day: Leading, following, objecting and muttering. How much time do you spend in each mode and is it the right proportion? The most insidious is muttering and it must be reduced to a minimum.
- How are you making work harder than it needs to be? Executive coach Dan Rockwell notes one way to accelerate performance is to stop wasting energy on low-benefit activities.
- World chess champion Magnus Carlsen argues it’s always better to be overly confident than pessimistic. If you are pessimistic, you might see dangers that don’t exist and miss opportunities.
- It’s hard to build momentum if you’re dividing your attention, observes Atomic Habits author James Clear.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.