Real Leaders

Managing Anxiety in Leadership

Here’s how leaders can transform anxiety from a harmful impediment to a helpful ingredient.

By Morra Aarons-Mele

Anxiety is often baked into the heart of effective leadership.

When you’re out-front enacting a vision, setting the tone, managing people, and ensuring outcomes, much depends on you, and your self-image and effectiveness are reflected in the job you do. If you care about your job and are personally invested in it, you will likely experience some anxiety.

But instead of a harmful impediment to leadership, anxiety can be a helpful ingredient. The key is learning how to manage it so you can experience just enough of it that it can serve you, while leaving behind the kind of debilitating anxiety that undermines leadership and inhibits growth.

Understanding how your anxiety plays out at work is valuable for any leader, even though identifying and facing anxieties can be difficult and even painful. 

Have faith, though. Decades of research have shown that those who understand their emotions have higher job satisfaction, stronger job performance, and better relationships. They’re more innovative and can synthesize diverse opinions and de-escalate conflict. Their self-awareness makes them knowledgeable about what gets to them, enabling them to prevent anxious situations at work. They’re able to respond to anxiety and stressors in a far more effective manner, leading to better outcomes for everyone. Why? They understand themselves and what triggers their anxieties. They have created strategies to manage anxiety instead of just coping and pushing through. They are no longer trapped by acting out automatic behaviors that punish themselves and their team. 

It’s really quite simple: Leaders who understand how anxiety motivates their behavior and who have developed the skills to manage their reactions are better leaders who deliver better outcomes for their organizations. 

Play Detective

Getting to know your anxiety will require you to tune in and take an honest look at yourself and your behavior. Approach this exercise with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. You may have an obvious form of anxiety, such as panic disorder or glossophobia (fear of public speaking). Or maybe you wake up every morning with a pit in your stomach and an undefined sense of dread about starting the day. You may have a fear of death or personal loss that impacts your business leadership. Like me, there may be a meeting or even a person whose very existence causes a flip in your stomach. Whatever your experience, start right there in the moment, and play detective with your own experience. 

Rebecca Harley, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, suggests starting with turning inward and noticing what’s happening in the present moment. Like a detective who is simply observing and gathering facts, tune in to whatever is happening in the moment and see what you discover. Playing detective is a fact-finding mission. Your job isn’t to judge what’s happening or do anything about it at all. It’s to observe impartially.  

Then, see if you can put some words to the most prominent experience. It may be a thought (This presentation is going to be a disaster); a physical sensation (dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, racing heart, excessive sweating); or a behavior you automatically turned to (mindless scrolling or snacking, for example). 

Note how you react when anxiety is present.

I call this reaction a “tell,” and it can take many forms — from tightness in the chest or a stomach flip, to impatience and irritability, to insomnia and indigestion, and all the way to a bout of depression (a loss of interest in life, for example). Your anxiety “tells” may not always be negative behaviors with harmful consequences. For instance, many of us connect more often with friends and family during stressful times, or we exercise.  

A physical experience is often the first “tell” for many people. This is because our body will register anxiety even if our conscious mind isn’t yet aware of it, or if we simply aren’t ready to admit our anxiety to ourselves. One of the first signs that my anxiety is ramping up is that my shoulders are bunched up under my ears. Much of the time, I won’t even notice that it’s happening until I stop and check in. If I don’t, my neck and shoulders will eventually tell me in the form of pain and tension. 

If you don’t know where to start, tune into your body for a workday, and monitor how you feel in your body and mind. 

Understanding and managing anxiety isn’t just a personal journey — it’s a cornerstone of effective leadership. By embracing and deciphering the signals anxiety sends, leaders can not only navigate challenges but also foster better relationships, innovate, and steer their teams toward success. Take that first step of observation, listen to your body, and let self-awareness guide you toward transforming anxiety from a harmful impediment to a helpful ingredient.

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