Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Less-Anxious Leadership

By Jim Higginbotham

Being a less-anxious presence is a core concept of pastoral care. (The literature actually uses the term “non-anxious presence”; I think that's unrealistic.) Being anxious comes in many forms. For example, students in my classes are encouraged to recognize the ways they over-function in helping another person. Giving advice, asking too many probing questions, and doing things for someone who could do it for him/herself are some of the common ways that caring people try too hard to help. What students often discover is that the more they attempt to alter someone's behavior or feelings, even out of compassion, the less the other person changes. Ironically, doing less often has more power.  Under-functioning is another kind of anxious reaction, which is often related to a history of woundedness.

Systems theorists assert that managing anxiety is the key to effective leadership. The less anxiously a leader reacts to the dynamics of a group the more effectively s/he can guide them through even the most difficult situations. Less-anxious pastoral careUnfortunately, leaders, like everyone else in a group, have difficulty recognizing their own reactivity. Organizations of all sizes have particular, often unrecognized patterns to their interactions, which are most characteristically exhibited in difficult decision-making. Groups will repeat the same “mistakes” over and over, even when the leadership changes. In small groups, people take on roles as if in a play, and it is hard to escape these roles without leaving the group. This is most evident in families, of course. Even in large organizations, systemic dynamics encourage the leader to react in a certain manner: the leader rose to that position, in part, because his/her style fits the system.

Therefore, good leadership is often not about changing the group you lead, but changing how you react to the group. Less reactivity can affect group dynamics. Similar to pastoral caregiving, leaders need to recognize when they are trying to do too much or when they are helping the group continue to spin in a direction that hasn't worked. In the latter situation, pushing the group to change directions probably won't be effective. However, if a leader stops enabling the current patterns and reacts with less anxiety when the group “rebels” against this new style, the group might slowly begin to function in a new manner. Organizations will also react strongly when one stops over-functioning. For many of us, it is hard not to rescue a group when it seems like it will fail without our doing what we have always done. However, good leadership has to allow the members to do what they can do for themselves, even if it means they have to learn the “hard way.”

So, what do you think about this idea of becoming a less-anxious presence as the heart of good leadership?

Jim HigginbothamJim Higginbotham is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Earlham School of Religion. He live in Indianapolis.


  1. I agree with you that it's pretty near impossible to be a non-anxious presence, so I like the term less-anxious. True change only comes when we work on changing ourselves and stop trying to change others. The theory is easy, the praxis is a bit more difficult, but certainly necessary.

  2. Lovely post. I'm trying so hard to be less anxious. :) I always worry :) that if I'm less anxious, I will cease to be.

    I'm anxious, therefore I am.

    I herd my anxiety like a flock of sheep and if one wanders off, I'm on it ...

    Any way around this? "Just relaxing" makes me so anxious. :)

  3. Being less anxious would be a great demonstration of our faith in God to bring about the needed change--be it in me or someone else.

  4. As a natural "fixer," I too responded to this piece. Over the years, I've found that I need to continuously check my investment in whatever situation I'm involving myself in, and, where necessary, create boundaries (physical, mental or emotional), if I'm getting over-involved.

    Thanks for this reminder. Mia

  5. Diane:

    Being less anxious is not easy. Self-awareness is a key, which is a profoundly spiritual matter. Systems theorists usually identify awareness of one's original family as the primary means, but I think there are many paths to deeper understanding. A clearer sense of the Spirit's presence can certainly create greater peace.

    Blessings to all of us as we strive to be more centered leaders!

  6. If anxiety is you reaction, I think it needs to be expressed, but in a self-conscious, not-outwardly-directed way. I tend to be anxious, and my first fallback alternative to acting on it is just as destructive: aloofness.

    Good leadership, to my mind, is being a channel, an embodiment, of something larger. This doesn't mean turning off the mind and following the mob, but it does mean setting aside personal anxiety to embody and encourage the group you are leading. Thinking of it as service -- making oneself a servant to the group -- is one common way people who are used to a master-servant model of interaction do this. Good clerking -- listening for movement of the Spirit within the group -- is another.