The not-so-obvious anxieties of leadership in organisations
Having a leadership role in an organisation comes with pros and cons. While some of the pros are visible and well recognised like money, social status, career opportunities and (at least initial) personal satisfaction, there are some hidden cons that make leaders experience anxieties that seem inexplicable at first. This article is about making sense of and intervene on those anxieties that do not make much sense and that, if ignored and neglected, can have a bad impact on the leader’s life.
A first point to consider when anxiety does not have a clear explanation, is that, perhaps, our way of looking at it needs to be modified. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) says that anxiety is caused by specific triggers that an individual considers threatening and, at the same time, difficult to manage successfully. This model is well known and tested, and, while it helps many people change they way they react to triggers by working on self-confidence and on their belief system, it may not capture the complexity of what is happening.
Take this example: You step into a small room with the heating on, and you start feeling very warm.
The sensation “I am warm” allows you to understand that the room is getting too hot and you use your sensation of being warm inside your body to understand what is going on outside of you. You can try to convince yourself that you are not feeling as hot as you actually are, but the bottom line is that, if you do not turn the heating off, you will keep on feeling hot.
System’s theory helps here by telling us is that "what we feel is information about both ourselves and about the situation we are in". As a matter of fact, the feeling of “being warm in a room” means something completely different if we are in a cold room… because in that case we might have a high temperature. This is valid for anxiety too. If, as a leader of an organisation, you feel anxious, this might mean one or both the following:
1) That you are anxious because of your own personal way of reacting to organisational challenges (the CBT way);
2) That actually some of the anxiety is embedded in the organisation (like we say that the room is hot, we might say that the organisation is anxious… but it doesn’t sound that well in our language).
These two points open up various options to overcome anxiety. The anxious leader can either work on him/herself to change their own anxious reactions to work challenges, or they can act on the organisation to make sure that less anxiety-provoking situations are created (like switching the heating off in a warm room). In the latter option, system’s theory helps again by reminding us to be strategic. The higher the leadership position, the more impact can be made on the system. The leader’s task lies mainly in understanding what intervention can cause the biggest amount of change.
Should you need further help managing your anxiety, a counsellor or psychotherapist can offer you the space to do so.