The Impact of a Non-Anxious Leadership Presence


In his powerful book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman talks about an anxious world’s desperate need for a non-anxious leader. He describes this type of leader as follows:

I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.

I got to watch this leader in person last week.

Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally arrives for his company's press availability at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit

Alan Mullaly is the former CEO of Boeing and Ford, where he led epic business turnarounds. As he presented to our annual Dale Carnegie conference, I noticed a calm descend on the room. His authenticity was palpable.

He pointed out, though, that he hasn’t always been that calm and authentic.

When he was early in his management career, he tried to fit into Boeing’s then command-and-control culture. He tried to act tough with other people and attempted to be the person that he thought others wanted him to be. Finally, with coaching, he gave up pretending and determined to be himself. His true self is calm and easy going.

I’ve been in that anxious place, trying to be something that I thought others wanted me to be. More times than I want to remember in my career, I’ve lost myself as I’ve absorbed the anxiety of the moment and the people around me. This has resulted in pretending, defending, posturing, and reacting.

Mr. Mullaly said that he eventually realized, “I am who I am,” and it’s not worth trying to anxiously react to pressure.

He said it is also the leader’s job to help others maintain a non-anxious presence. For example, his overarching cultural rule for meetings is, “Never make a joke at someone else’s expense. It removes safety.”

Have you been in that meeting where joking about someone causes everyone to maintain a more anxious guard?

“Bill, why don’t you plan the team outing since you know how to party? We all remember how wild you got at the last team event! Ha ha ha!” Anxious laughter ensues as Bill tensely tries to fulfill the group’s expectation of him.

This anxiety is uncomfortable, and it hides our true strengths.

The Key to Building a Non-Anxious Presence

Dr. Friedman begins his description of a non-anxious leader as someone who has goal clarity. So perhaps the remedy to an anxious presence is to get clarity on what you value, as I discussed in a post on performance anxiety.

Non-anxious leaders know what’s important to them and what’s not important to them. They understand what defines their value so that they can regulate their reactions to other people. They can be separate from other people (their opinions, expectations and anxieties) while remaining connected.

Maybe Alan Mullaly resurrected Boeing and Ford through strategy, great hires and hard work. Or maybe those things simply leveraged his greatest asset: his non-anxious presence.

How would it transform your impact—on yourself and others—if you became a non-anxious leader?

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