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Anxiety in Leadership: how to deal with it and why it isn’t such a bad thing after all

You’re worried about cash flow, how your business decisions will affect your staff, if you are good enough to manage a company and expect to build a sustainable, healthy business with prospects and job security. Oh, flumps! If I asked you to list the qualities of great leadership, what would you say?

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think most people would list anxiety in the top traits of business leaders. We’re fed images of dynamic, young go-getters on The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den. We tend to think of business leaders as an extension of the self-assured salesperson: ruthless in their pursuit of the big sale, dramatic growth and the image of über-confident business-types in power suits and braces. That drive comes with arrogance and being successful in business means being brazen and heartless.

But there’s a problem with this picture. That’s not who I am. 

So, does that mean I have no ambition? No, I have lofty goals. Am I destined to fall in line behind ‘the great alpha leader’ and see my dreams and ideals lost or trampled upon? I sure hope not!

So, what gives?

Whilst the pervasive idea of a business leader is one of dominance, power-dressing, never admitting mistakes, macho-confidence and other curiously masculine pursuits; effective leadership and success don’t have to mean buying into some notion of toxic masculinity and upholding the pillars of patriarchy.

Treat people like family, and they will be loyal and give their all.

― Arianna Huffington

I can’t imagine many of my friends would describe me as particularly confident – nervous and indecisive, most probably. Yet, I am driven and ambitious. So, how do I rationalise these seemingly opposing traits. I often think about my daily life as a battle between my motivation for doing things and my anxiety around doing those things. I think herein lies the trick – the more motivated I am to do something, the less likely I am to succumb to my anxiety, hence why I find it easier to pursue things that I am passionate about. 

Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.

Simon Sinek

Coming of Age

I was always the shy, unassuming kid who followed the rules and did as they were told. The older I got, the more frustrated I became at the way good people are treated simply because they don’t shout the loudest or cause the most fuss. I was conscientious and worked hard, I was always a high achiever in school, so why was I being overlooked for pay rises and promotions? A few early career experiences made it clear to me that the people who got ahead in their career or business were not necessarily those who worked the hardest or were the best at what they did. I thought it was a meritocracy. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

After one particularly frustrating and humiliating experience where I was once again overlooked for a pay rise yet was training and mentoring new starters who were earning more than me, I decided, as you do, to try a little experiment with my job: I worked less. I put my headphones on. I stopped asking for advice from the team. I booked meetings with people in other departments to talk about ‘how we could work better together’ – I didn’t worry about attention to detail and deflected any criticism. 

After about a month or so, I handed in my notice. My boss was shocked “But, things have been going so well lately”, unwittingly proving my point and simultaneously galvanising my resolve. I didn’t have another job to go to. My boss couldn’t understand. For me, there had to be a better way of doing things. I believed that. So, I nervously set out on my own: a handful of contacts in one pocket and my trusty work-ethic in the other.

Fast forward 18 years

Now, I’m the Experience Director at a successful digital agency focused on supporting businesses, charities and other organisations achieve their goals of tech-for-good, profit-for-purpose and improving health outcomes, especially amongst those who have previously been disempowered or excluded. Things I give a shit about.

Remember what I said about motivation vs. anxiety?

When I was in a prescriptive environment that I believed was the way things worked, I faltered. What little confidence I had was shot. I did not thrive. My anxiety won and I was tense and frustrated.

Now, look at me – what a marvellous transformation!

OK, well maybe don’t look too hard. I still have anxiety and it still wins some days. But I have learnt to lean into it sometimes. Where I can, I play to my strengths; where I can’t, I try to mitigate my weaknesses or see how my anxiety can be used for good.

You think too much, you do

You’re probably right – overthinking is my anxiety’s best mate. However, it does tend to mean that I research and prepare well. I try to build systems and processes to reduce risk and uncertainty. Having an incredible business partner also helps. Ruth doesn’t put up with my bullshit. Fortunately, she also trusts and supports me and gives me time to consider things. 

Narrow the field

Analysis paralysis is common when there are too many options. If you’re struggling to make a decision, lean on your team to help filter and focus. Think about techniques you can draw upon, sometimes it’s easier to delegate responsibility to a process – the Eisenhower Matrix is a good example of this but it doesn’t have to be something with a fancy name. Limit yourself to two or three options and see if that clarifies things. Imagine you’re in a restaurant, pick three things. You’ll probably like all three and you might find it difficult to choose between them. Here, I like to put myself through the ordeal of panic-deciding when the waiting staff come over. Do I always pick ‘the best thing on the menu’? No, probably not, but I rarely make a bad choice. Business is sometimes like this. You’re so caught up in the idea of making ‘the best decision’ that you forget that usually just making a fairly well-reasoned decision is better than making none at all.

Cool, calm and collected

Don’t freak out. If things are getting too much remember that it can be good to change your environment and switch modes. In a world where everyone is always on, connected and decisions have to be made right there and then, sometimes the power move is to stop. Press pause, go outside and get some fresh air. I’m not an advocate for procrastination but taking some time out to compose yourself can do wonders for your mood and your decision-making ability.

Amygdala hijack!

If you’re anything like me, then your silly ole brain has a bad habit of invoking your fight-or-flight response in stressful situations. This harks back to when we were more at risk of being killed or injured by a predator. I haven’t been attacked by a giant eagle in a while but my body still reacts to emotional stressors in the same way (i.e. I shit my pants). 

The best thing you can do here is invest in your own emotional intelligence. It takes work but learning to manage your emotions is a major life skill, I reckon I use it more than Pythagoras’ Theorem yet, I was never taught this at school. Managing your emotions isn’t about suppressing your feelings or patterns of avoidance. It’s about recognising and understanding the influence your emotions and mood have on your behaviour and your ability to make good choices. Educate yourself and practise, try counselling, speak to your friends and family, read – whatever works for you.

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And, release…

Stress and anxiety are interlinked, we don’t always realise how stressed we are. Sometimes, we only notice after we stop feeling stressed. ‘Oh, that’s what normal feels like’. Take a moment to stop and breathe:

  • Release your shoulders from your ears
  • Unclench your jaw
  • Remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth
  • Relax

If you’re in a position of leadership it’s practically your duty to lead by example. If your team sees you practising healthy behaviour, respecting boundaries and setting good working patterns, they will understand that being mentally healthy is important, valuable and critical to success. Don’t feed a culture of overworking. Don’t eat lunch at your desk – get out and get some fresh air. Take breaks. Draw. Ask for help.

On a purely practical level, burnout costs time, money and loses projects. Also, hiring new staff isn’t cheap. The notion of the high-pressure, always-on silicon valley work-ethic needs to go in the bin. Stat. Who would have thought caring about your staff also helps your business run better? Wild.

Fair enough

Ruth and I worry about treating people fairly. I think anxiety has a tendency to make you concerned about the impact of your decisions – was that the right choice? Are we treating people properly? We’re proud of our team, we believe in them and we have faith that investing in our team pays dividends. Also, building a business that values people and the way they are treated means that we can ease our anxiety and helps us sleep at night.

WiP & Snap!

We have a weekly ritual – the WiP & Snap! Production meetings can get caught up in the very functional notion of work-in-progress and it’s easy to feel like you’re on a conveyor belt or a cog in a machine. So, heavily influenced by Legally Blonde 2, we introduced ‘snaps’ to our production meetings. We take a few minutes at the end to praise our co-workers and celebrate their growth and achievements over the past week. Sure, it’s a bit of fun and lightens the mood but it’s genuine and when anxiety has hijacked your brainbox, it really helps to ground us and remind us of the good stuff we all do. Go team!

Hippos and the great leveller

Having been in situations where we have felt disempowered, worried or stressed makes us more aware that people can feel disempowered, worried or stressed, and that that is OK. 

You may have heard the term ‘HiPPO’ – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, even if you don’t know the name you’ve probably experienced it. You’re in a meeting and the boss is talking over everyone, not listening to advice and people with much more knowledge and experience don’t feel able to speak. Your anxiety takes over and you don’t want to challenge the boss. There’s a power dynamic and a battle of wits that someone with anxiety is unlikely to get into. Their voice is lost. 

Humility isn’t often touted as a leadership quality but being able to listen and treat your team as equals will ensure people feel heard, valued and will earn you respect. Our discovery workshops are safe spaces, we aim to create positive environments for people to use their voices and share their opinions. Many of the exercises are anonymous and voted for by the team, priorities are interrogated and alignment is revealed. Oftentimes, we find that the quietest voice may have the loudest idea when given the opportunity. If decisions are made in a safe forum it reduces the anxiety around making the right choices – the risk is shared and the personal pressure is reduced. Two fingers to anxiety!

You don’t wanna be a leader

Doesn’t mean you don’t know the way

Lucy Dacus, The Shell

So, in conclusion…

OK, so there isn’t really a conclusion here, just a signpost to say that it’s OK to be anxious, especially about things you care about. It doesn’t mean you don’t have drive and ambition.

Hopefully, you can take some comfort in knowing that not all leaders have to fit the stereotypical alpha male business variety – there is space: be yourself, be authentic. Don’t ignore your weaknesses but find a team who supports you and support your team. 

We’re strong advocates for improving health and wellbeing at work, especially in the digital and creative space, so please read our post on 6 ways digital technology is being used to improve our mental health if you want some more insight on this.

Anxiety might provide you with more empathy and compassion, two great qualities for servant leaders. Find strength in diversity.

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