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Leadership anxiety: How to lead when you experience it

You’re not alone in feeling leadership anxiety. Here’s what to keep in mind when you feel it, and how to move forward.

leadership anxiety

A wave of leadership anxiety hit me last week. My unending to-do list, the pressure of not wanting to let my team down, and my own voice of “You need to be doing more” and “You’re not doing enough” rung in my ears and tossed me around as mercilessly as the ocean might.

Famed leadership coach Jerry Colonna calls this manifestation of leadership anxiety “the Crow”, the negative inner critic who is squawking in your ear. But last week, the Crow seemed to have installed a megaphone inside my brain, and so its distant caw became a boom of lightning and thunder.

Do you know the feeling?

Anxiety might be the most universal felt experience of leadership. Some may call it “impostor syndrome” or “negative self-talk.” It manifests for each of us in slightly different ways: Paralyzing fear of doing the wrong thing, overcompensating with hours and force, frequent direction changes that give our team whiplash.

But the most frequent side effect of leadership anxiety is one I noticed last week…

While I was in my tumultuous moment of leadership anxiety, I happened to read a note from one of my colleagues at Know Your Team. He had an idea about something new we should consider at a company. After reading his note, my instinctive reaction to his idea in my head was, “That’s a terrible idea…”

Thank goodness I didn’t say or write that because when I woke up the next morning, rested and clear-eyed, I re-read my colleague’s message again: It was fine. In fact, it was a great idea – an idea that I almost dismissed because I’d been too lost in my own interior fog. I hadn’t seen the truth of the situation for what it was, because I was so caught up in my own leadership anxiety.

It made me think: How many other ideas had I unknowingly discarded or held in contempt, simply because the anxiety and judgment I held for myself was so high that I projected it outward to everything and everyone around me?

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The unknowing consequence

I realized that the most common unwanted consequence of leadership anxiety is that we unknowingly transfer that anxiety onto our team.

When we feel we’re not working hard enough, we tell our team they need to work harder. When we feel the pressure of a deadline, we move everyone’s deadlines up. When we feel our own ideas are terrible, we tell our team “your ideas need to be better.”

When we spiral into leadership anxiety, we react to our own inner drama, rather than the reality of the world. It’s not that our team isn’t working hard enough… We’re self-conscious of our worth ethic. It’s not that team’s ideas aren’t good… We don’t like our own ideas.

The same anxiety that stifles us stifles our team.

While you feel like you can bear the weight of the world and that being the most self-critical person in your organization is “your job” as a leader – remember all the ways, big and small, you transfer those anxieties to your team.

I had to remember this for myself last week.

So, what do we do when we feel this leadership anxiety?

Even though we may know this reality, remembering it often does not help us in the moment to change our reality.

Leadership anxiety can be all-consuming: How can we possibly shed ourselves of this anxiety when we feel it, so it doesn’t cripple ourselves or our team?

Here three techniques that I personally use that perhaps you might find helpful. I call them, The Check-in, The Quack, and The Walk:

(1) The Check-in

Name the emotion to create space – and a path forward. In order to address our leadership anxiety, we must first check in with ourselves, and ask: “What am I feeling? What would I call this?” For myself, last week, I realized I was feeling “Fear.” Recognizing this clarified my perspective almost immediately: I realized what I was reacting to. When we name how we’re feeling, it gives us space to see the emotion more objectively, more clearly, and so we can begin a better process of relating to it. Otherwise, the negative emotions of leadership anxiety gain power over us when we fail to see them for what they are.

(2) The Quack

Use a “cue word” to thought-stop and be diverted from a course of thinking. Dr. Brian R. Little describes in his seminal research how important it is to interrupt a negative thought pattern for oneself to stop perpetuating it. In his delightful and incisive book, he describes how for himself, when he’d notice a negative or circular thought pattern for himself, he would literally say the word, “QUACK” out loud to himself. This is an amusing example, but the core tenant is salient: We can use a “cue word” to shift our attention and create room for ourselves to see the negative thought pattern of leadership anxiety, rather than succumb to it.

(If at all helpful, my “Quack” work is “Jumping Jacks!” because the image of someone or myself all of sudden doing jumping jacks makes me smile. This word can truly be anything that best suits you.)

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(3) The Walk

Move to a different physical location to shake up your perspective. We all have an activity or two that helps us clear our heads. Perhaps it’s a walk around your neighborhood. Or perhaps it’s making a cup of coffee for yourself. Whatever your go-to activity might be, this physical movement and change in physical perspective can be massively helpful in breaking us out of a spiral of leadership anxiety we might feel. Much research has already revealed the mental health benefits of physical movement, be it exercising or even doing chores around the house. I’ve personally found this to carry over to my own experience of leadership anxiety.

May I ask you: What is your version of “The Walk” you like to do to clear your head? And how can you do it more often?

In all of these tactics, you’ll notice one glaring similarity amongst them: They all require pause. A pause in what we’re doing, in how we’re thinking. We literally must stop and slow down as a leader, if we are to truly lead well when we’re experiencing leadership anxiety.

This can feel awfully counterintuitive. We naturally want to immediately “fix” something if we feel it’s wrong – we’re eager to keep pressing on, being relentless in our actions, so we can find the “fix” to our leadership anxiety.

But the “fix” we’re searching for can only be found if we pause. If we stop where we are, what we’re doing, and do The Check-in, The Quack, and The Walk to find our path forward.

Only then will we be leading our team up and out of the leadership anxiety we’re experiencing.

💫 Know that you are NOT alone as a leader in facing leadership anxiety. Be sure to check out Know Your Team.

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.