Continuing a re-post of the series from 2010. Many of us in leadership know about the need to attend to our anxiety, we just don't always know why...
In the harsh mid-summer African heat, a herd of impala find an increasingly rare water hole. They rush to drink, crowding in, fearful of not getting enough water to sustain them. Suddenly, one impala raises his head in high alert. Immediately every other Impala stops drinking, and stands at attention. No impala moves, none utter a sound. But the tension is palpable, there seems to be a crackle of electricity in the air. Every impala at that moment has a life or death decision to make: “Is that a lion or not?”
If there is a lion lurking near that whole and they don’t run, they become lion lunch. If there is NOT a lion lurking near the whole and they DO run, they lose their place at the watering hole and could die of thirst. If there is a lion and they do run, or if there is NOT a lion and they do not run, they live another day. But all that matters is: “Is that a lion or not?”
And everything in their impala-beings is focused on making that crucial life and death decision. Just like they do every day. Numerous times a day.
Part of what helps the impala make that decision is the “herd energy”, the “animal anxiety” that permeates the group and that causes them to share listening, hearing, deciding together. And depending upon how the “system” responds to anxiety is one of the key factors for the health and ability to weather threats and face changes in climate or challenges in terrain for a herd, a family, a church or organization.
In this series, we have been looking at what it takes to be a “good disappointing leader”, that is what it takes to “disappoint your own people at a rate they can absorb” so that they will take on the challenges, make the changes and continue to move toward the goals (or watering holes) that will insure their vitality, longevity and “mission” of the family, church, organization or company. Over the last few posts we have been examining the leadership mantra: "Start with a conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course." In my last post, I discussed the leader as “Crockpot thermostat” regulating the heat of a system so that it will continue toward transformation without scorching and ruining the system.
A significant part of “staying calm” and “regulating heat” specifically, is in understanding that the “heat” that most hinders organizational systems from moving toward their aspirations and goals is anxiety. Anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it’s a ‘creaturely’ thing. It just is. We feel anxious when we are reacting to a threat that is either real or imagined. Sometimes the anxiety is a gift that tells us that there is something bad that is threatening the clan (A fire alarm going off, the sixth sense that someone is lying to you, the motivation to lose weight when the doctor tells you that your cholesterol is so high you wont live to see grandchildren.) This is called “acute anxiety.” It motivates us to do something to get ourselves or our loved ones out of danger (for example, when there is a lion at the watering hole.)
“In and of itself, anxiety is neither functional or dysfunctional. It is a state of readiness to do something or other that may or may not be appropriate in response to a threat that may or may not be accurately perceived.” (Jeffrey Miller, The Anxious Organization: Why smart companies do dumb things, p. 14)
But the key difference between animals and humans is that with humans real or “acute anxiety” often becomes “chronic anxiety”, lingering in a family or social system even after the threat is gone. Acute anxiety is a pervasive stance of being that continues even after the threat is gone. (Soldiers with post-traumatic stress who wake up on high alert even while safe at home in their beds, depression-era senior citizens who stock up on eggs or toilet paper years later, an adult who grew up in an abusive home who winces every time someone raises their voice even the smallest bit.) Chronic anxiety is present when the threats of the past continue to hold power even though the system is no longer really in danger.
There have been lots of studies about the affects of stress and anxiety in life today. We are taught good stress reducing tricks like exercise or deep breathing or taking “mini-vacations” while at our desks, lowering our anxiousness by thinking of a ‘happy place.’ These things are all good for our personal well-being. But in the midst of leading change, they miss the point.
For leaders, the point of “calming down” is not to feel better; it’s to make better decisions. And when people are too “hot”, they don’t. The only issue is: Is there a lion or not? Is there really a threat or are we making this up? Do we really need to run, or should we stay here and get water and then calmly continue our journey? Do we really need to be this angry, fearful, defensive or is there a better decision that we can make that will take us where we want to go?
For leaders, this is the point to remember about anxiety: People who are overly or chronically anxious don’t make good decisions. When anxiety spikes we revert to more “primitive” ways of being. We fight, we flee, we freeze. We turn on each other instead of working together. We run from danger and leave others to face the lions alone. Or we capitulate and allow the herd to be overrun.
Peter Steinke: “To lead means to have some command of our own anxiety and some capacity not to let other people’s anxiety contaminate us; that is, not to allow their anxiety to affect our thinking, actions, and decisions.”
Perhaps the most important task of leadership is to cultivate the ability to make good decisions. Good, wise, discerning, decisions for the sake of both the health and mission of the herd. And that will take both “regulating the heat” and thinking well while doing so.
Both of which are necessary to face the absolutely unexpected threat that is coming to knock you "off course" as you lead your people. Which is where we will pick this up next...