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Anxiety – a leadership birth pang?

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on anxiety – its antecedents, its presentation, its impacts.

It is perhaps not surprising. I don’t feel particularly anxious – at least not at a conscious level. But it is ‘in the air’. Be it the insidious impacts of a struggling economy, the sense of impending doom from escalating and multiplying major global conflicts, or the creeping exhaustion from navigating a landscape (personal or professional) of uncertainties and ambiguities. Who can interact with any reputable media source (let’s leave fake news and the conspiracy theorists out of it for now) without sensing an oppressive heaviness.

I guess that because I’m noticing that, at some level I am experiencing, if not anxiety per se, then the familiar, fertile breeding ground in which anxiety can shoot forth.

I’m certainly witnessing it in my work as coach and consultant. Sometimes its an explicit, acknowledged presentation. Oftentimes, it is an unarticulated dis-ease. Either way, it is ‘felt’ and impactful.

Mostly we tend to regard anxiety in the negative – an unwelcome, unhelpful, and disabling response to life’s events. And in many circumstances, this is true. Recently I’ve been drawn, however, to reflect again on the broader dimensions of anxiety, and particularly with regard to the complex challenges confronting today’s leaders.

There is value, I think, in pausing to examine some of the complex interrelationships between anxiety and leadership.

The intersection of anxiety and leadership presents a paradox. On one hand, a certain level of anxiety can be a driving force that propels leaders to perform at their peak, fostering a sense of urgency and alertness. On the other hand, excessive anxiety can be debilitating, impairing decision-making abilities, and undermining a leader’s confidence and credibility.

The role of anxiety in leadership can be examined through various theoretical lenses. Transactional Leadership Theory suggests that leaders engage in a series of transactions with their followers, offering rewards or punishments in exchange for performance. In this context, a leader’s anxiety may manifest in a heightened focus on performance metrics, potentially leading to a short-term increase in productivity. However, this may also result in a transactional relationship devoid of emotional connection, which can be detrimental to long-term organisational health.

Conversely, Transformational Leadership posits that leaders work by inspiring and motivating followers to exceed their own self-interests for the good of the group. A leader grappling with anxiety may struggle to embody the inspirational and charismatic qualities that are central to this leadership style. The contagion effect of emotions suggests that a leader’s anxiety can permeate through the team, leading to a collective sense of unease and uncertainty.

Psychodynamic Approach to leadership highlights the unconscious influences. It suggests that a leader’s anxiety might stem from deep-seated fears and unresolved conflicts, which can affect their leadership style. For instance, a leader with an anxious attachment style may exhibit overbearing or controlling tendencies, seeking constant reassurance from their team.

Empirical research has shed light on the impact of a leader’s anxiety on their followers. A study by the Harvard Business Reviewfound that leaders who exhibit anxiety are perceived as less effective by their subordinates. The research indicates that followers often mirror the emotional states of their leaders, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion. Therefore, a leader’s anxiety can inadvertently lower the morale and productivity of their team.

Notwithstanding the oftentimes troubling, and sometimes disabling, impacts of anxiety, there is a perhaps a deeper, essentially metaphysical, dimension to be considered too – a consideration which might reveal a more hopeful dimension to, and purpose of, anxiety. This requires us to engage with the question, what is the role of anxiety in our ‘becoming’ – our emergence into a fuller sense of who we are as individuals, and as leaders?  

This is no mere academic consideration. Time and again leadership coaches explore the functional-ontological tension for leaders – a necessary exploration of ‘who I am’ as a leader in contradistinction from ‘what I do’ as a leader.

Philosophers over the centuries have reflected much on this and there is insight to be gained from their wrestling with such a substantial topic.

In her recent article, The Philosophy of Anxiety, the philosopher Sasha Mudd provides an insightful overview of the ways in which philosophical discourses have provided insights on a more positive and generative facet of anxiety. Mudd reminds us how, for the 19th C Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, ”anxiety expresses the individual’s predicament of being open to innumerable, open-ended possibilities, which can occasion both paralysis and despair—as well as the opportunity of overcoming these emotions through transformative acts of faith.”

Schopenhauer offers another view, focusing instead on anxiety as an expression of our restless attempts to overcome our limits. Heidegger, on the other hand, posits a hopeful facet of anxiety as an expression of the emergence of our personal authenticity from ‘non-being’.  

These perspectives find an even more transformative expression by the 20th C existentialists who insist that we ‘create ourselves’ through our actions and choices and that anxiety is an expression of that ‘birthing’.

Whichever philosophical school we align ourselves with, there is reason to recognise a dimension of anxiety as enlarging rather than diminishing, as generative rather than destructive.  

As a coach, nothing gives me more satisfaction than accompanying leaders as they emerge into a fuller awareness of who they are as leaders. Anxiety inevitably and necessarily accompanies that process and experienced coaches will assist a reframing of such anxiety as a creative expression rather than a reductive force.  

Ontology does not ignore the functional expression of leadership; rather it enlivens and transforms it. The accompanying anxiety is a disturbing but fundamentally creative symbol of the emergence of a fuller expression of leadership.

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