Why being an effective leader means curbing anxiety

If you're a leader, your decisions affect other people. If you're a leader who is anxious, look out. Anxiety puts us in an impaired state, and the results can be disastrous.

I know. I was born into a family of worriers. It's easy for me to bring anxiety into my roles as a pastor, leader and father -- and every time I let that happen, the effects are harmful. If you sometimes struggle with anxiety and are in any kind of leadership role, I hope you find today's post helpful.

In his book Healthy Congregations, Peter Steinke writes about the three main systems of the brain.
  • The neo-cortex is the center of rational thought. 
  • The limbic system is the center of emotions. 
  • The reptilian system is the center of raw, fight-or-flight responses. This is the least reflective and most compulsive of the three systems.

All three systems are important, but leaders must have the emotional maturity and the self-control to operate out of the neocortex. This is the system that gives us the ability to act consistently, on principle, with focused intention.

What happens if you are overwhelmed by anxiety? You become controlled not by the neocortex but by either the limbic system (being captive to your emotions -- like fear or anger or rationalization) or the reptilian system (snapping into self-preservation mode -- maybe lashing out or escaping reality). In terms of the ability to lead through focused, principled action...
If you are a leader who is overwhelmed by anxiety, you are literally not in your right mind.

This is why soldiers are trained to remain calm under fire. And why leadership in high-stress situations turns on our ability to be a "non-anxious presence."

Paul writes, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Phil 4:6-7) For us leaders, it is worth our time to prayerfully discern what is causing us to be anxious and surrender it to God. If we listen to the monastic fathers and mothers, working free of our attachments gives us the ability to advance in the spiritual life. It also keeps us in our right minds as leaders.

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