How anxiety impacts your leadership – Part One

In the book “Canoeing the Mountains,” Tod Bolsinger shares how when a herd of impala in the brutal African heat find a watering 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. At that moment, every impala has a life-or-death decision to make: Is this a lion or not?
If there is a lion lurking near that spot and they don’t run, they become lion lunch. If there’s no lion lurking near the hole and they do run, they lose their place at the watering hole and could die of thirst. 
If there is a lion and they run, or if there is no lion and they don’t run, they live another day. But all that matters is: Is that a lion or not? Everything in their impala being 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 causes them to share listening, hearing, and deciding together. 
Over the course of the past few years, no doubt you’ve experienced a lot of anxiety. And hopefully, along the way, you’ve learned from it as well. 
Here’s another observation from Bolsinger about anxiety. He writes, “Anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it’s a creaturely thing. It just is. We feel anxious when reacting to a threat, whether real or imagined. Sometimes the anxiety is a gift that tells us that something bad is threatening the clan.” Think “mama bear” parental instincts.
And so for all the desire to rid ourselves of anxiety, perhaps there is a greater purpose to discover. Here are a few questions for consideration.
Are you basing decisions on fear or facts?
As a leader, you need to be grounded in facts when making decisions. When fearful and anxious we tend to be more reactionary than normal. In those moments, assess the threat – perceived or real – and then proceed.
Is there really a threat or is it something made up?
It could be that the anxiety you feel is an actual threat that you need to deal with. But nothing could be worse for the health of your organization than wasting time and energy responding to a threat that was only the byproduct of someone’s overactive imagination. 
Your leadership instincts are important and knowing how anxiety impacts it is as well. You will lead people with varying degrees of anxiety and how they deal with it will vary as well. And here is a truth you need to remember – people who are overly anxious do not always make the best decisions. When facing high levels of anxiety, Bolsinger says that people will react in one of three ways: We fight, we flee, we freeze. We run from danger and leave the others to fight the lions alone. Or we capitulate and allow the herd to be overrun. We turn on each other instead of working together. 
Final Thoughts
Your leadership instincts are important and knowing how anxiety impacts it is as well. Anxiety can devastate your leadership and your organization or you can learn to use it to your advantage. But one thing is unavoidable as a leader – you will deal with it. And in those moments when it really counts and so much is on the line – you will need to determine whether it’s a lion or not. 
Next week in part two of this series, I will outline some practical steps you can take in your leadership to help those around you by not allowing anxiety to paralyze your organization or your leadership. 
©2022 Doug Dickerson
Doug Dickerson is a certified leadership speaker, trainer, and coach. Learn more

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