Anxiety Ruins Leadership

Aug 3, 2019 | leadership

Anxiety, what a terrible word. Even just hearing it can make people anxious about the fact they experience anxiety. When you are driving down the road and need to slam on the brakes, anxiety proves to be a life-saver, but usually anxiety just distracts you from being the best leader possible. The interesting thing is the process of reading this article and thinking about ways to stop anxiety is probably causing some readers anxiety. Wonderfully, life does not need to revolve around escaping anxiety.

To be able to reduce anxiety’s effect on your life, you need to understand anxiety. Stop thinking about anxiety as a pathological issue (anxiety = mental health problems) and start thinking about it as patterns created to deal with life. There are three simple rules for reducing anxiety’s control on your life.  1- Everything is about anxiety. 2- The other person’s reactions are not about you. 3- Your responsibility is to manage your anxiety. Sounds simple, right?

Everything is about anxiety.

People experience two types of anxiety. The first comes from deep within the amygdala. This is the instinctual self-preservation reactions happening without thought. It is often called the fight, flight, or freeze response. Our minds identify danger and respond before it can tell us about the danger.

The second is chronic anxiety.  This is the anxiety relationships develop: “Will he remember our anniversary?”, “Will she like my new haircut?”, “Will he come home tonight?” This also occurs at work: “Is my boss in a good mood?”, “Can I get my work done?”, “Is that new person replacing me, she seems to be doing my job.” It also happens within a friendship: “I wasn’t invited to her party, doesn’t she like me anymore?”, “I want to talk about politics, but it becomes so uncomfortable because he disagrees with me.”, “Will anyone read this blog?”

Personal interactions can be filled with chronic anxiety. People make choices based on other people’s beliefs, values, and views but struggle to develop their own beliefs, values, and views. The funny thing is partner A makes decisions based on what they think partner B wants, but partner B makes decisions based on what they think partner A wants. In the end, neither partner likes the decision and both partners are frustrated with the choice. The partners were unwilling to upset the situation by honestly discussing their thoughts.

The other person’s reactions are not about you.

This is harder to understand. When you are having a conversation and the other person starts to become angry or starts blaming you for the problem, it is easy to accept the responsibility for the situation. The fact is the other person is responsible for their reaction to their anxiety. Their reaction is based on whatever is going on in their head, not what you did or said.

Let’s use elephants as an example. Person A hates elephants, maybe they had a bad experience with one, maybe they were scared by one as a child, or maybe they think elephants are just too big and smelly. If person B uses the word ‘elephant,’ person A may respond with accusations that person B is insensitive and disrespectful because person B should know how much person A hates elephants. Person B now has a choice to either work really, really hard at never saying ‘elephant’ again or to recognize the response is about person A. Person A cannot and should not expect anyone else to accept the responsibility of lowering person A’s anxiety about elephants.

Your responsibility is to manage your own anxiety.

If everything is about anxiety and the other person is responsible for managing their anxiety, then it goes to reason that you are responsible for managing your anxiety. How do you do that? It starts by becoming aware of how your body reacts to chronic anxiety. Does your back tense up, maybe your stomach starts to ache, or at your last dentist appointment you were told to stop grinding your teeth?

Let’s return to our elephant situation. You hate elephants. When you were a child you went to the zoo and they scared you. Now you want nothing to do with anything about them, not even the word. One day, your friend mentions an elephant.  You want to respond with frustration about the elephant but notice your body’s response. Then you recognize that you are responding to your memory of the elephant and not your friend. You manage your anxiety and do not over-react to the situation.

As with all things that seem simple, the reality of changing the patterns of how we think, how we react, and the emotions we feel takes time and effort. The encouraging thing is that once a person recognizes the anxiety driven response and starts to discover new ways of reacting, the person is starting to manage their own anxiety. When anxiety is not running your life, you are able to make healthy changes.


If you are interested in learning more about how anxiety affects a person’s ability to be a great leader, contact Hello People consulting. By phone: 1.425.318.8096 or email: