Covid has another symptom-leadership anxiety

Updated: Mar 2

It may not surprise you to learn that the topic of anxiety and heightened emotions as a result of Covid-19 and its fallout was a common theme in our discussions over a number of forums in July.

It seems that Covid-19 has brought all of us face to face with the fact we are not in total control, and not being in control is making us feel apprehensive and worried.

The fact that we are not in control of everything has come as a bit of a surprise to some of us because most of the time life goes on at a steady pace and we can deal with the tiny jolts as they come along or do our best to prevent them by anticipating what we think might come down the track. There are rarely big shocks to the system like the collapse of the economy in 2008 and now Covid-19. Thank goodness.

The present is our gift to ourselves

We unpacked the challenges that were stressing us, which varied from dealing in very uncertain markets or dealing with employees who are themselves feeling stressed and not performing at their optimum. It’s drummed into us that good leaders plan. How can we plan for a future we cannot envisage? And some people make their situation worse by envisaging a very dystopian future.

The thing is, we cannot hold tomorrow’s meeting with a difficult client, bank manager, employee or supplier today. We can only prepare as best we can and respond to the given circumstances and what the other party presents to us, trusting that the other stakeholders will want to achieve a solution that suits both of us.

It's about staying with the present and dealing with each situation as it arises. There’s a section in my last blog Don’t Throw the Out Baby that popped into my head – it’s about driving in fog. If you missed it, you can read it https://www.essenceofleadership.ie/post/don-t-throw-out-the-baby

The pressure of responsibility

Leaders tend to assume responsibility for everything, and that is stressful. Another more supportive way to look at responsibility is to see it instead as our ‘ability to respond’; we don’t have to be responsible for everything and everybody, we just need to respond to what’s happening. When we adopt this approach, it gives us a greater sense of control and the clarity to better respond to the next challenge.

What became apparent as I reflected on the sessions and got feedback from those who attended them is that when we focus on what we are incontrol of, the stress diminishes. And what we are most in control of is our response in the present moment.

The next key is, where appropriate, to share the decision making with the other stake holders. When we share the decision making, we are more likely to get a more holistic solution that we will not have to return to plus we are likely to gain greater commitment to its implementation.

‘The best we can do for one another is to exchange our thoughts freely; and that, after all, is about all.’ –James A Froude 1818-94

I came across this quote about 20 years ago. It stuck me that the big shift in the perspectives of the forum participants towards their anxiety about how to handle the fallout from Covid came from openly exchanging their thoughts about the situation in the forum.

Anxiety is a human reaction

I also realised that for much of my adult life I lived with what can only be termed a low-grade anxiety. I had assumed, in my leadership role that I had to have the answers. I thought I was the only person feeling this way until about 25 years ago when I read a comment credited to Henry David Thoreau from his book Walden published in 1846, which went, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Whether it’s true or not, that sense of not being alone made a big difference at the time. It helped set me on a journey to live a more relaxed and enjoyable life, which is still very much a work in progress. Up to then I thought I was the problem. In fact, at the time, I had not even heard of the term anxiety.

To know that anxiety is a normal human reaction to times of great change is in itself a big relief. We are not responsible for the stress others are suffering. It may be enough to provide the opportunities for employees and management to openly discuss the issues and challenges they are experiencing. This sharing has been shown to build resilience and foster greater team-work. The time invested will be recouped on the double in higher output and more creative solutions.

As a facilitator who leads peer-to-peer forums, this was an eye opener for me. I don’t have to provide the answers, I just need to provide the opportunity for open discussion and exchange. I need to trust that each person arrives at an answer that suits their individual journey.

It will be interesting to see, in next month’s forums, whether the anxiety that was emerging in July is heightened because of the Level 5 restrictions that have just been imposed, or diminished, because the leaders have learned to accept that we don’t control everything.

I’m very excited to see a new role evolving out of the present difficulties for those in leadership positions and that is to provide an open, non-judgemental space for the solutions to emerge, rather than trying to impose previously held beliefs about how life things should be done (albeit motivated by a genuine belief that it is for the leader and the leader alone to come up with the answers). Wouldn’t that be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud?

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