Leading Through Anxious Times and Situations: More Than Meets the Eye

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous

to be understood. . .

Let me keep company always with those who say

“Look!”  and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

--Poet, Mary Oliver[1]


We are sufficient for the day,

to love, to adventure

to go on the grand tour,

into another


~~W. Craig Gilliam[2]


All organizations (congregations/communities) are profound, complex mysteries. The Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said of his wife that he knew her so well that she was completely and utterly unknown to him.  Those same words describe my encounters with organizations and congregations, these living organisms, these unpredictable communities with a wonderful and frightening life of their own.  The more I know any organization/community, the more it is completely and utterly unknown to me.  

As we walk winding and wandering into the organizational/congregational mystery, deeper and deeper into its joys and pains, its challenges and opportunities, in and out, curving, stumbling, meandering on circular walk-ways, listening to the questions on the journey and hearing the emerging wisdom, we walk with awareness and sensitivity, always paying attention. The blade of each new crisis points the way and brings us closer to the bigger question the organization/community lives from its center.  The essence of this mystery called organization/congregation/community is relationship.  Leading in this labyrinth of relationships involves our full attention, our words and our presence, our walking and our standing still, our way of doing and our way of being.  It involves our thinking, our spirits, our bodies and our emotions.  All are part of what it means to be ourselves, of being a leader in our complex, fast-moving organizations today.

While there are no simple check-lists, formulas or “how-to” answers for leading through anxious times and situations in organizations and congregations, this essay will offer insights to help leaders lead in anxious times and settings, and do it in a way that lessens stress, increases the possibility of positive movement for the organization/congregation and heightens awareness. I identify and give a working definition of anxiety, behaviors that are symptomatic of high anxiety and common triggers of anxiety. Then, the essay moves into some thinking about leading through anxious situations. Enjoy the journey.  Like any body of relationships and life, organizations are mysteries to be embraced, not problems to be solved. 


Whether the organization/congregation is made up of two or one hundred and two people, anxiety is always present both individually and in the system itself. It is a deep flowing powerful force.  From a systems perspective, leadership involves learning to regulate and manage this hidden anxiety and its influence on oneself and the larger system. To do so, we must pay attention with a fierce attentiveness.

The word anxiety comes from a Latin root that means to strangle, to have by the throat, to choke, to cause pain by squeezing.  We all know the suffocating impact of anxiety when it becomes too intense.  It is like a wet wool overcoat.  It stifles, it restricts, it confines and blinds us from options for creative flow and adaptation. 

As you are aware, there are two kinds of anxiety, acute and chronic.  When gripped by acute anxiety, we know why we are anxious.  It is a response to a real, immediate threat.  An example is: We are anxious because we have an audit tomorrow and we do not have all of our numbers together or we have a board meeting and the agenda is still in the air. This anxiety can be helpful, for it can motivate us not to delay any longer. 

Systemic or chronic anxiety is different.  It is a deeper, lingering anxiety.  We can sense it, we might even feel its effect within, but we cannot clearly identify its source or reason. It is like a deep ocean current that we cannot see, but it is flowing, stirring the sands and making the vision murky and unclear.  It is more imaginal, and surfaces around the “what if” questions not necessarily grounded in reality.  It is the “cry wolf” that keeps whispering and sometimes shouting.  Systemic anxiety can envelop us when we walk into it.  When we get caught in it, and fear and panic become our modus operandi, the imagined reality we fear often constellates.  Another way to say this is that when we get caught in the anxiety, we begin to create the very reality we say we are trying to avoid.

Chronic anxiety is contagious, bringing out the worse of human potential.  If people are not differentiated or have a healthy sense of self-definition, it spreads like a highly infectious virus.  The sign of its infection is the reactivity and resistance people display.  When infected, we will often behave in ways we had never imagined. 

In his latest book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in An Age of Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman offers an illustration of systemic anxiety. Consider a room filled with gas fumes. If you are aware of the fumes, you know to be cautious. Then someone enters the room, oblivious to the world around him or her, and strikes a match to light a cigarette. The room explodes. Someone will be heard to say, “That dumb person who struck the match.”The truth is, we should be able to strike a match anywhere we would like, within reason, and not generate an explosion. The question is not who struck the match, but why was the environment so toxic and explosive in the first place. Instead of people blaming the person who struck the match, it is more responsible and productive to focus on dispersing the fumes that made the atmosphere toxic in the first place. In other words, the systemic anxiety was the issue, not the symptom surfacing around striking the match. The strike of the match was the issue on which the anxiety became focused rather than its real causes and ways to regulate or de-fume the environment. (Friedman 1999, p. 79)

The challenge and opportunity is how to regulate this chronic anxiety, so it will not choke, strangle, or stifle creativity or create unnecessary anxiety and conflict between and among people.  How do we assist in keeping it from becoming a force that drives us apart from our knowing?  How can we regulate and manage it in a manner that creates mature, resilient organizations and communities and invites our best, most creative selves? 

Anxiety is like the wind—you cannot see it, but you can feel it and observe its impact.  But to observe it, one must pay attention.  For example, one cannot see the wind, but if you look at a flag on a flagpole, you can tell if there is wind, and if so, you can estimate its strength.  You can feel it against your skin. 

The same is true for anxiety.  When you are working in your organization or working with a group, you cannot see the anxiety, but by observing the participants, you can tell if it is present, and if so, how strong. If you are sensitive and have developed the art of paying attention, and are intuitive or discerning toward self and others, you can feel the anxiety against and under your skin.

From working with organizations, congregations and various communities that are anxious, conflicted or stuck on that creative abyss looking to the next step, or trying to be intentional and reflective about the future they are trying to create, I have found there are clear, common indicators of chronic anxiety that can be observed and sensed:

Indicators of chronic anxiety

  • Blaming. Mature leadership and community foster taking appropriate responsibility, not blame.  Blame and anxiety feed each other.  As blame increases, so does anxiety.  As anxiety increases, so does blame. 
  • Horriblizing others.  When an individual or group is caught in anxiety, other people’s faults seem larger.
  • Feeling victimized.  As a result of feeling like victims, those in the system do not claim, at least in a responsible way, the power they have.
  • Seeing people as objects, not people as people.  When anxiety is high, the relationships with those who disagree tend to become objectified. In the language of the philosopher Martin Buber, when anxiety gets high, we stand in the world in an I-It way[3]; the other(s) is seen as having less value, less worth and less importance in contrast to an I-Thou way.
  • Exaggerating values.  Anxious individuals and groups inflate their values. Although the values may be positive, when they become exaggerated, they can become counter-productive.  As the poet and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran comments, “An exaggeration is a truth that has lost its temper.” 
  • Focusing on weaknesses and pathology.  When organizations are highly anxious, they are unable to see or acknowledge strengths and celebrations of others or the organization/community.  Highly anxious individuals and organizations do not see possibilities.  They can only see challenges, problems dangers and cautions.   As a leader, I have found that when I enter and focus on the pathology in the system/organization, the people will go no further with me.  But if I can help them discover what holds meaning and passion for them, what they really care about, it is then that the organization’s paralyzing anxiety lowers, creativity rises, and they have greater possibilities to move forward.
  • Over-emphasizing rules, regulations and policies.
  • Cut-off in important relationships. Conversations stop or are not honest.
  • Magnifying differences between and among people.
  • Demanding certainty, while strongly resisting living with ambiguity.
  • Focusing on self in an unhealthy, obsessive way.  
  • Resistant to creativity and diversity.  They want everyone to see alike, act alike, be alike, believe alike.
  • Fomenting unhealthy triangles and secrets in the organization/community. Secrets lock in the anxiety and pain and are never on the side of healthy, mature, resilient organizations.
  • Focusing on “shoulds,” the critical parent voice. I like the bumper sticker that says, “I will not ‘Should’ on anybody today.”
  • Demands for quick fixes, saviors and short- term relief.
  • Over-emphasis on who’s right.
  • Escalating reactivity, sabotage and resistance. Also a lack of vulnerability, compassion and empathy.

While above are some universal indicators for high anxiety in individuals and organizations/congregations, we also have our personal indicators.  I encourage you to spend time developing a list of indicators that signal when you are getting caught in the anxiety of a group. For me, an indicator is when I can no longer think of questions to ask a group.  One person told me that sarcasm was one of his indicators.  Another person tells me that her indicator is that she withdraws and gets quiet.  She tells the story of a time when she was with her family and her feelings were hurt. She began to withdraw as was her pattern when things did not go in the direction she desired.  Her daughter remarked, “Mommy is pouting.”  She said, “She caught me and named it.  She helped me find my indicator when I am getting anxious.”  You may be familiar with the 4 F’s of anxiety reactions:  fight, flight, freeze and fright. 

Questions to Ponder:

  • What are the indicators in your organization/congregation/community that the anxiety is high?
  • In your family or personal life, what are the indicators of high anxiety?
  • What is the narrative you and the organization were telling yourselves about self and others? For your personal and family life?

In contrast, a less anxious, well-thought-through, intentional response by leaders in highly anxious situations is a perspective that opens space for safe, courageous conversation, and reminds us of the ever-changing flow of life, with all its movement and possibility.  When leaders, organizations, congregations and teams are in this place, they are able to hold what John Paul Lederach called, “paradoxical curiosity;” that is to hold together what appears on the surface to be opposites without judgment, until clarity and deeper insights are realized. Through this reflective perspective, presence, and the culture it creates, the organization is drawn closer to the present and finds there the underlying thread connecting the moment’s experience to the fabric of life and the organization’s deeper purpose and passions. It opens people in the organization and the organization itself to a bigger sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing; it opens the people and the organization itself as a body to trust the experience, the wisdom of the group to find its way through the experience, and it allows them to see with “quiet eyes,” and to perceive what is trying to emerge. Granted, as anxiety rises, the functioning of people potentially becomes more reactive and conflict can easily follow, for conflict is a way of dealing with anxiety. The anxiety and conflict, when responded to appropriately by leaders, can be the catalyst for creative, adaptive growth and positive change.

Questions to Ponder: 

  • What are times when your organization/congregation has dealt with anxiety in a productive way?  What helped such positive responses to happen?
  • What are times in your personal life or the life of your family when you dealt with anxious situations in a productive way? What helped such a positive response to anxiety happen?
  • What was the narrative you were telling yourself about yourself and other(s)?

Topics that Activate Anxiety

In organizational life/congregational life, some common topics activate anxiety. I call these hot buttons or triggers of anxiety.  When these topics emerge, anxiety appears and can easily escalate.  Although the list is not exhaustive, it highlights some common triggers in organizations/communities with whom I have worked:

  • Money—In organizations, follow the money trail, and you follow the anxiety trail.
  • Leadership style—whenever this issue surfaces in organizations, I am never immediately certain what that means.  Thus, when I enter an organization and leadership style is mentioned as an issue, I spend time unpacking its deeper, intended meaning.
  • Conflict between/among leadership, team members, teams, personnel, staff—When conflict and anxiety exist in the leadership, it surfaces in the organizational body ten-fold.
  • Change in worship--For congregations, a change in worksh-p raises anxiety.
  • Sex and issues around sexuality--Whether heterosexuality or homosexuality, issues around sexuality seem to activate anxiety in congregations and many organizations.
  • Growth and survival—When a organization moves into a survivalist mode, it becomes more difficult. 
  • Old and new—When working with organizations caught in this struggle of the way we have always done it or ways, the conversation is to help them clarify what holds meaning, value and identity.  Also, the central question becomes How can they preserve what holds meaning and works for them and is part of their identity, while also staying relevant to the emerging culture around them?
  • Change of leadership—Whenever leadership changes, anxiety rises.  Think of the organization as a giant mobile; you touch one part and the entire mobile quakes.  When the leadership changes, the mobile shakes.
  • Silo/turf mentality—That is competition and turf struggles.
  • Governance/Community decision-making process—When the decision-making process breaks down or is unclear, anxiety is triggered. 

Questions to Ponder:

  • What are hot buttons or triggers of anxiety for your organization/congregation/community? What are the topics or themes?
  • What are some hot buttons or triggers of anxiety for your family/personal life or community?

Am I suggesting that since these identified issues or buttons trigger anxiety that leaders should stay away from them?  Am I suggesting that as you identify other triggers of anxiety for your organization/congregation/community beyond these listed, that you should stay away from them? No, absolutely not!  Around any issue that is important to us lies the potential for anxiety to heighten.  It is our wish to escape from anxiety or a paralyzing fear of being swept away by it that steals our aliveness, but avoidance is not the best strategy. What I am suggesting is to be aware that anxiety might surface around these issues, so when you deal with them, do your own inner and outer work.  We do not have to be naïve or surprised if we encounter anxiety, sabotage or resistance around these issues and others.  When it occurs, be prepared, calm and pay attention. Three keys to such a conversation are timing, context and spirit.  Regularly, I am asking, What is the courageous conversation that is trying to happen here, and how do you keep the channels of communication open? How do you continue see people as people to be valued, not objects to be manipulated, defeated, discounted or used.

Strategies for Anxious Times

To help leaders move organizations/congregations through times of high anxiety, the following are several strategies that I have found helpful.  This is not a comprehensive list, but several of my own findings that I offer to you.  

Work on your family of origin and extended family field.  One possibility is to do a genogram or, at least, revisit your family literally or metaphorically, to understand the voices and persons who influenced you. 

The way we lead and the manner in which we handle anxiety is strongly influenced by what we learned from our family of origin and our extended family field.  We carry our ancestors with us.  How did your family of origin and extended family deal with anxiety, and how do you deal with it?  What is the same, what is different? 

Remain calm, non-anxious and responsive in the face of anxious situations and groups.  If the leaders remain calm and responsive, the group has a greater chance of finding its way to a calmer and more creative way of responding.  I tend my own hoop and focus on staying calm and non-anxious myself.  One of the most important variables to remember in modifying communities is to take responsibility for yourself rather than try to control others.  When the leader can stay calm and non-anxious, or at least less-anxious, it has a salutary impact on those with whom she/he connects.

Believe in yourself and the visible and invisible forces to help carry you through your situation. You are and have what you need available to you. Many of us in the situation feel so overwhelmed and that we do not have enough to handle what is before us, which can only add to the anxiety. Part of the challenge is, what is the narrative you are telling yourself about the situation, yourself, and others that are keeping you stuck. What is the conversation you need to stop having? What is the new, courageous conversation that needs to emerge? What is the invitation in the current situation?

Remember to breathe.  When getting anxious, I take three deep breaths before speaking.  Breathing helps us to relax, to focus, to maintain balance and to be present.

Be present and listen with compassion and curiosity.  Deep listening is a sacred act.  Listening means being fully present with others.  When we are present and listen to others, the moments of insight can emerge, creative options can surface, deeper connections happen, and possibilities for moving deeper and forward through difficult issues increase significantly.

Find space where you can reflect on events and regain perspective.  Find an out-of-the-box place from which you see life, other people and yourself differently. Sometimes this space comes from being with an old friend or new acquaintance whose mere presence opens space or that allows you the space to get out-of-the-box within.

Reach out to confidants with whom you can debrief decisions and actions and articulate your reasons for taking certain actions.  Ideally, a confidant is not a current ally within your organization. An important criterion is that your confidant cares more about you than about the issue at stake.  Also, she or he needs to be honest, compassionate and insightful. If they think you are being and doing in a way that is unfair to others or yourself, they will “call your hand.”           

Utilize the spiritual practices from your tradition to nurture your soul and your spirit.  This might be yoga, meditation or another practice that helps the leader cultivate, stay grounded and in touch with themselves at their best. We are invited to engage our spiritual practices regularly. For me, martial arts is one. I have been doing martial arts since 4th grade. I am better when I am practicing it. If we need support or guidance, getting a spiritual director can be a helpful resource. What are your spiritual practice(s), and how do you call upon them to help calm you or find your way through anxious times?

Exercise, eat right and nurture a positive attitude.  Healthy diets, good exercise habits and positive attitudes fall under the broad umbrella of lifestyle and have become indisputable contributions to one’s health and excellence in leadership. 

Don’t lose yourself in your role/position.  Defining your life through a single endeavor, no matter how important it is to you and to others, makes you vulnerable when the environment shifts.  While your position or role is important and part of who you are, there is a whole host of mystery and personality to you that is beyond your role.  Let the mystery live, not the role define.

Ask open, honest, high level questions.  Good leadership for this century is less about having the answers and more about asking the difficult and beautiful questions and not allowing the group to settle for easy answers. 

While part of good leadership begins with honest questions, some questions are designed to injure or make a point rather than explore and learn.  But open, honest questions are grounded in humility, curiosity, and a desire to understand.  Open, honest questions can help groups move to a higher level of functioning and away from the type of anxiety that paralyzes.  In addition, asking questions give the responsibility and anxiety back to the rightful owners and invites them to find their own solutions or next steps. 

Part of asking open, honest, beautiful questions is about cultivating a relationship with the unknown and learning to be comfortable in that relationship. Questions are the bred crumbs forward into the unknown horizon that is full of possibilities.

What is an open, honest question?  It is not: “Have you ever thought of seeing a therapist?”  That question is loaded.  An open, honest question is something like, “Help me to understand . . .this situation more clearly.  What do you think this is about? What is an appropriate response?” 

Be transparent as a leader. Organizations, congregations and other communities come through transitional times better when the leaders model openness and refuse to allow secrets and unhealthy emotional triangles to be part of the process.  Secrets lock in the pain, stick systems and breed mistrust.  (Transparency does not mean leaders do not have boundaries or are not differentiated.  Boundaries are important for leaders in anxious situations, but a culture of trust is cultivated through appropriate transparency and courageous, honest conversations.)

Work to see the strengths of the organization/community and its members or employees.  Spend time discussing what you can celebrate about your organization/community.  It is not a way of ignoring the challenges; by affirming what you do well, you find the strength and energy to address the challenges or growing edges.

Bring your emotional self to your work.  Appropriate displays of emotion can be an effective tool for change and regulating anxiety, especially when balanced with poise. People appreciate candor and honesty. 

Emotions/feelings are part of any decision and what it means to be human.  When we deny rather than acknowledge them, they go “under the table”, but still influence decisions. 

Have a vision and articulate it regularly.  Both personally and for the organization, a clear vision and being able to articulate the vision is important for organizations.  Vision is not only about seeing further. An anchor into the future, vision also has to do with perception, “seeing” what others do not see.

Know what you believe, where you stand, what are your core values.  Fleshing out what you believe is a lifelong conversation. In times of high anxiety, your core values serve as a compass or guiding principles through the mire.  In addition to knowing your guiding principles, I also suggest working on how to articulate those“I” statements in a manner that does not belittle people who stand at a different place.

While defining self, work to stay in personal, face-to-face connection or relationship with the other(s) as much as possible.  If it is with an individual or group of people, try to stay in relationship as much as possible and do it in an authentic way that has integrity.  While staying in relationship, also we have to honor their choice not to be in relationship.  But still we can maintain a way that honors them as people, whether they maintain that towards us or not.  This does not mean we have to be friends, but we can still be their leader/boss.  

Spend more time and energy on the motivated, than the unmotivated; on the fruit-bearing, not the troublesome issues, people and situations, the emotionally and spiritually responsible and mature, not the immature.  Too often I have heard leaders lament that they spend 80% of their time with the troublesome 20%.  A heard one leaders say that one of her convictions is “not to invest inordinate energy in helping people cross the street if they do not want to go.”  As a leader, what does it look like for you to focus more on the motivated, the mature, the responsible, the fruit-bearing or those who yield positive outcomes in your context of leadership?

Love what you do, but not too much.  A poet is being interviewed.  The interviewer asks, “With the demands of life, making a living, etc., how do you keep your attention on writing poetry?”  She responds that she never takes a job that she loves too much.  In other words, she stays clear on the difference between her job and her vocation and to which is her deeper commitment.  When we as leaders keep clarity between job and deeper work, between what is life-giving and life-depleting, and can live in the tension, it impacts us and the systems to which we are connected.

Questions to Ponder:

  • Are there any strategies or ways of being in the previous list that resonated for you? If so, what would it mean for you to be attentive to that one or ones that resonated for you? Who can help you explore or cultivate that strategy or way of being? What are your next steps?
  • What would you add to the previous list of strategies or ways of being for your work in your organization?
  • For your personal life? For your family?

As a leader, your challenges might seem overwhelming at times—with work, your own personal needs, family, social life--all demanding more than you have to give. But within the challenges are also invitations, gifts and opportunities. We are in unique times and a watershed moment.  Never have the challenges been so great, nor have the opportunities and technologies been so many. 

 Questions to Ponder:

  • What will you do with the invitations, opportunities and possibilities before you?
  • How do you model a different way of doing and being (less-anxious) in organizational and your personal life?
  • How do you create a culture that actually helps people thrive, encourages courageous, open conversation, cultivates trust and lowers unproductive anxiety?
  • What is your next step and who can help you?

From what I am seeing, I think we have yet to become who we can be, but we are moving in the right direction—one step at a time, one conversation at a time, one person at a time, one organization at a time, one congregation at a time, one community at a time. Thanks for your leadership!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!