September 8

How to deal with anxiety as a leader

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my mortgage”
“Business is down and I’m not sure I’ll be able to pay my mortgage,“ said Jasmine.

She’s a very senior leader in a business that’s had a difficult year, and her bonus this year is likely to take a big hit. This bonus represents most of her take-home pay, and as the main breadwinner of her family she’s incredibly worried about her ability to maintain her family’s current lifestyle. As a result, she’s anxious and stressed, sleeping poorly and on edge during the day.

This might be a familiar story to you, too. Leadership can be lonely, and it can be tough when you have responsibilities to your team on one side and responsibilities to your family on another.

It’s important to deal with these feelings of anxiety - both for yourself and also so that you can lead more effectively. Leadership always starts on the inside: who you are being impacts people far more than what you are doing or saying.

So, how can you deal with fear and anxiety as a leader ? Well, in my experience there are two things to master to win the inner game when you feel the anxiety mount:

  • First of all, understand the fear and come face-to-face with it
  • Secondly, learn to manage the anxiety in the moment, so that you can make better leadership choices.

With that in mind, here are six practical skills you can learn to diffuse fear and anxiety.

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Dealing with anxiety as a leader, step 1: understand & face the fear

First of all, it’s important to analyse and understand the source of the anxiety you’re feeling and bring it under the cold light of truth. And it’s important to understand how the anxiety is impacting your ability to lead. This is the first set of three skills.

1. Articulate the story you’re telling

Our feelings aren’t a result of reality; they are a result of our thinking. It’s the story we are telling ourselves that is giving rise to the feelings of anxiety.

In Jasmine’s case, the story is something like the following:

“I’m probably not going to get any bonus, won’t be able to cover our living costs, which will mean we’ll need to sell the house or take the kids out of their school… which will result in misery for the family, which will mean I’m a poor mother and not the superstar performer I see myself as. And my family will probably hate me and think I’m a loser.

See how many assumptions are packed into the story? The assumption of zero bonus, the assumption that this will necessarily result in downsizing the house or taking the kids out of their school, the assumption that this will create misery for her family, the assumption that this says something about her value, acceptance and identity...

So, understand the story you’re telling yourself, and notice your assumptions and the extreme outcomes you’re imagining. Observe where you are overdramatising. And ask yourself, what’s a more realistic and empowering alternative narrative?

2. Observe how fear affects your leadership presence

How is your fear and anxiety impacting how you show up as a leader? It’s probably coming out in one of the following ways:

  • Fight: You might notice that you’re diving into all the detail, losing the big picture and trying to micromanage and control everything. Perhaps you’re being ill-tempered and unreceptive to input.
  • Flight: Are you running away from the issues, perhaps by abdicating responsibility, or perhaps by retreating Into your inner world and leaving your team directionless in the meantime?
  • Freeze: Perhaps you’re paralysed, dabbling in one thing and then another, but not taking consistent action in any one direction.
  • Fawn: You might observe people-pleasing tendencies coming out. You’re trying to create a sense of safety by playing politics and ingratiating yourself with your superiors, instead of leading with courage and conviction.

It’s important to catch this, because your anxiety is not just an internal problem; it’s very probably impacting your ability to win hearts and minds, to think clearly, and to take productive steps forward. You’re probably falling back on old behaviours, and not leaning forward into more impactful habits.

3. Die before the battle

The Samurai had a practice of “dying before the battle”. By meditating on the inevitability of their death, they became people with nothing to lose. This allowed them to be more courageous and daring on the battlefield than their opponents; fully accepting their death paradoxically meaning they became more likely to win.

If fear and anxiety are present, it’s because you’ve not fully accepted the worst-case scenario. This is deep inner work, and you may need a coach for this, but by accepting that you’ll be OK no matter the business outcome you’ll become much more able to be the bold and courageous leader who can create an optimal result.

In Jasmine’s case, even if the worst-case scenario came to pass and she had to sell her house, would that really be so bad? We know many wealthy but miserable people in large houses, and many happy families in smaller homes. We know many billionaires who had financial ups and downs in their life. It’s incredibly powerful to be able to look deeply into the worst-case scenario and realise that it’ll be okay.

Have you looked the worst-case scenario in the eyes, and made peace with it?

Dealing with anxiety as a leader, step 2: manage your stress-response

Now we turn to the habits you need to develop to manage the stress and anxiety in the moment, whenever it shows up during your day. These are really mental muscles you need to build, and they represent the second set of three skills.

4. Notice where fear shows up in your body

You also need to address the fear-response in the moment, as it shows up. To do this, understand how it feels, physically, when the anxiety shows up. Is it an ache in your shoulders or your neck, or a sense of pressure coming in from all sides, or a knot in your stomach, or something else?

Identify it, and start to notice it. There’s no need to judge it; simply accept and acknowledge it; it’s your body’s way of telling you there’s some kind of threat, but you know it’s really an imagined future threat and not actually anything real. So you can thank your body for the warning, without giving into stress-response.

5. Interrupt the pattern with a mindfulness habit

Once you feel the fear coming on, this is a sign that the ‘reptilian’ part of your brain is trying to hijack your body and move you into stress-response. As someone once said, Fear is False Events Appearing Real (F.E.A.R.!) - your anxiety is not due to imminent danger but an imagined future risk.

To counter this, you need to bring your awareness back to the present moment and the fact that you are not in fact being attacked by a wild animal! Two exercises here can help, both of which just take seconds to execute:

  • Take five slow and deep breaths: in, out. Focus your attention on the breath itself, and the feeling of your lungs and stomach swelling up, and then softening as you exhale.
  • Rub your finger and thumb lightly together for 10 seconds, noticing the ridges of your fingerprints rubbing against each other.

Both of these exercises bring your attention away from future imagined scenarios and back to the reality of the present moment. By doing this, you interrupt the stress-response process and allow your prefrontal cortex to bring some cool-headed analysis to the situation at hand.

6. Ask a new question

Now you’re in a calmer state, ask yourself a creative question, along the lines of “what would a bold and compassionate leader do right now to move things along?” or “how can I best serve my team in this moment?”

This question allows you to imagine more creative and valuable courses of action, and takes you away from the instinctive fear response of fight, flight, freeze or fawn.

Being honest: my own anxiety as a leader

Let me speak personally about my own experience in this area. I’m not a particularly anxious person but, I’ll be honest, this has been something I’ve had to deal with myself as I’ve built out my business. There are months when business is good and clients are queuing up; and there have been months when everything seems to have been delayed, the phone stopped ringing, and I’ve started to wonder what’s going on.

In my case, the anxiety has often come from a sense of “always needing to outperform”. I’ve caught myself telling a story along the following lines: Am I going to be able to exponentially grow revenues every single quarter, and if I can’t, what does that say about me? How can I be a valuable advisor to other business owners?

Of course, this kind of story is a recipe for creating a terrible and ever-increasing burden, and it’s founded on the erroneous assumption that “every good business is an uninterrupted stream of ever-better quarters”. Whereas actually every great entrepreneur needs resilience, creativity, grit in the face of adversity, and the like.

It’s taken me a while to spot this unhelpful mindset in myself, and relax more into the journey. And then realise that most of those fears turned out to be completely ungrounded anyway!

Managing stress and anxiety is a leadership superpower

I believe in Jasmine; she’s an incredible leader and will bounce back from whatever setback life and business throws at her. She has more power than she knows, and she has no need to worry about her financial future. As we continue to work together and she learns to manage her anxiety, she’ll be able to enjoy the journey more, stop trying to micromanage her team, and bring more power and impact to her own leadership.

And I believe in you, too. If you’re reading this you are a skilled high-performer and you have more personal power than you know. Face your anxiety, and master the skills to catch the stress-response as it starts, come back into the present and choose more creative courses of action.


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