Several years ago, I attended a retreat for non-clergy church leaders. The program was excellent, introducing me to the concept of leadership’s role as a “non-anxious presence” for those they serve. The elements were drawn from the work of author, therapist, and rabbi, Edwin Friedman. In his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Friedman defines the non-anxious leader like this:
"I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing."
CEO and blogger Matt Norman posted, “Non-anxious leaders know what’s important to them and what’s not important to them. They understand what defines their value so that they can regulate their reactions to other people.” Norman points out that leaders may have separate opinions, expectations and anxieties, but can’t let them get in the way of connecting with others. He writes:
“I’ve been in that anxious place, trying to be something that I thought others wanted me to be. More times than I want to remember in my career, I’ve lost myself as I’ve absorbed the anxiety of the moment and the people around me. This has resulted in pretending, defending, posturing, and reacting.”
As I read this, I thought, haven’t we all been there! But how can we prepare ourselves to maintain a non-anxious presence when the stakes are really high? Here are a few thoughts:
- Spend time getting very clear on your vision, your purpose, and your values. Write them down. Share them. This is the strong foundation that will ground you during challenging times.
- Focus out, not in. The nature of anxiety is that is pushes our attention inward, to how we are feeling. Focusing on others and actively listening to their concerns and perspectives calms that negative inner voice and allows us to objectively evaluate the situation.
- Remain curious. Don’t give into the impulse to defend or to assign blame. Only ask questions you don’t know the answer to, i.e. no “gotcha” questions. Create a safe space for dialogue using open-ended questions and ensuring that all voices are heard.
- See the innocence: Anxiety and pressure bring out the worst in people. It’s easy to focus on annoying and selfish behavior and become irritated. In Meditations on Life, the author says that seeing the innocence is a powerful tool for transformation. When someone is acting in a way we don’t like, we often see them as “guilty”. I have learned to stop and ask myself, “What is the most innocent explanation for this behavior?” This silent question allows me to focus on solutions and on the relationship.
- Reassure and remind: Great leaders inspire confidence and trust. The non-anxious leader does not ignore problems and threats. However, he or she reassures the team that they can meet the challenge and reminds them of the vision, purpose, and team loyalty that unite them. They remind people of past crises survived by pulling together and reassure them that they can do it again.
In my executive coaching practice, we often discuss the client’s learned leadership style vs. their “style under stress.” Commitment to provide a non-anxious presence helps the client to focus on consistent behavior even through extremely challenging situations.
I know that I am a long way from perfecting my ability to provide a non-anxious presence, in both my work and my family life. So, I not only strive to have compassion for others, but for myself when I fall short of the mark. We all need encouragement and forgiveness on our leadership journeys.