The One Thing That Determines Your Leadership Effectiveness

What’s more important to leadership effectiveness: having low anxiety or high skill?

As I realized last week, that question isn’t as simple as it might seem.

I was on fire last week. In fact, I actually told a friend that I was “firing on all cylinders.” I was energetic, confident, focused, and relaxed. And I was performing well too. I was cranking out work. My communication with others was well structured and impactful…until it wasn’t.

Something changed inside me on Thursday. I began to feel insecure and nervous because of information I’d received. I didn’t show these feelings, though. I charged ahead anyway, my behavior still “firing on all cylinders.”

To distract from that emotional pivot inside me, I self-medicated Thursday night with some wine as I wrapped up yet another work email that I felt needed to get out before I went to bed. But then my mind wouldn’t let me sleep well.

By Friday morning, I was criticizing myself for starting the day tired. Later, back at home that night, defensive and sharp, I conflicted with my family. While I professionally coach people on their people skills and communication skills—I know how to do this!—it’s clear I wasn’t following any of that coaching.

Then on Saturday, I came down with a bad cold. And that’s when I finally took a step back to see what was really going on.

It’s not just about skill.

I thought about a CEO I’d recently observed as he sat through an important meeting with his team. He wasn’t fully present. Head down, he spent most of the time banging out messages on his phone. Every so often, he’d jerk his head up, smile, make a comment or nod to feign participation in the meeting, and then he’d be back to his device. He also left the room several times, his team glancing at the door after him.

Before the meeting, he had told me there was a lot going on in the company. So maybe he was handling a crisis. But no one else in the room was given the luxury to leave, and he never explained his attention-deficit behavior to the group.

All I could think was, this is a seasoned, well-respected CEO! He’s polished and savvy, and a really good guy. He could probably write a book on effective leadership, communication, and people skills.

So what the heck? Why was his presence in that meeting so unproductive and dampening?

Maybe he was just feeling anxious.

Is it possible that all leadership and communication skills succeed or fail on how well we manage our anxiety?

When I’m anxious I talk too much, I don’t listen well, I’m quick to judge, I don’t think clearly, I rationalize, I burn out, and I avoid.

I can often feel my body tense up from anxiety. In the past week alone, I felt myself tense up with anxiety when:

  • On a phone call, someone told me “no.”
  • Over coffee, someone told me they were competing with me.
  • Someone put something on my calendar that I didn’t want to do.
  • In a weekly meeting, someone told me we were behind in an important goal.
  • I discovered that someone did something that affects me without telling me.

That feeling of tension inside me absolutely influenced my thoughts and my actions.

In the situations where I showed up as my best self, on the other hand, I had the self-awareness to take a non-anxious mental track:

Oh, I just felt my body tense up. I’m feeling anxious about this. That’s OK, take a breath, relax your body, remember who you are, release that anxiety.

None of the leadership techniques, methods, and skills I’ve learned—or raw talent, for that matter—could have done more to help me respond better in those situations.

Who we are always supersedes what we do.

Reflecting on who we are (our thoughts, feelings, and identity as a human being) plays a greater role in our effectiveness than managing what we do (our skills, techniques, and activities).

And so I did some reflection this morning, before anyone woke up in our house. Who am I, right now, as I try to parent these kids, lead this company, deliver this work, or write a blog post? Where might my anxiety be prompting me to fight with or run away from my best self?

I got off track last week, thinking that firing on all cylinders meant doing those things that I’ve learned are what make someone a top performer in my role. But the doing wasn’t the whole story. Nothing like a bad cold and interpersonal conflict to get you to wake up and realize what’s really going on.

How about you? What does anxiety look like for you?

It’s important to learn the skills for communicating and working well with others, but recognize that it all rises and falls on your anxiety.

Where could you be less anxious?

And if who we are always supersedes what we do, what are the implications for coaching, training, performance reviews, hiring, and promotion?




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  • Jonathan V
    November 3, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    Yes. Exactly. Been wrestling with much of the same lately. And the emotions that limit ourselves are contagious to those around us, and especially to those we are supposed to lead. Thanks for the reality check and for your humility in sharing the lesson.

    • Matt Norman
      November 3, 2017 at 3:39 pm

      That is such a good point that limiting emotions aren’t limited to us – they are contagious. Thank you for your humility also.