The Power Of A Non-Anxious Presence

By: Eric Betts

“The climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership…This kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.” Edwin Friedman – rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant.

Friedman asserts that a leader’s job is to be “the strength in the system.” Families, groups, and institutions have “emotional fields” (like magnetic fields or gravitational fields). The leader’s self-differentiation, or lack thereof, has an effect on the emotional field. Leaders will either take on the chronic anxiety of the system, or they will transform that anxiety by their calm, steady, well-defined presence.

A major sign of being better differentiated is when the leader can be present in the midst of emotional turmoil and actively relate to key people while calmly maintaining a sense of the leader’s own direction. Developing greater clarity about what is happening in a system will always be more productive in the long run than just having empathy for the hurting people in the system and trying to rescue them. People grow through challenge and not by simply being made to feel better about their plight

Neither reasonableness, role modeling, nor imparting insight will work with this kind of virus in an organization. For viruses to run amok, there has to be complicity in the host organism. When a pathogen attacks the organism (organization), the healthy cells are observing and waiting to see what happens to their protection – to the organization’s immune system – the leader. When the leader is well defined and clear, the pathogens don’t replicate.

Non-anxious presence — Anxiety can lead to numerous organizational symptoms and general stuckness. Chronic anxiety overrides thinking. When emotion swirls out of control, people simply take sides. Playfulness and creativity disappear. Leaders focus on self and hold down the level of anxiety in the emotional system primarily by managing their own anxiety, and secondarily by staying in meaningful contact with other key players in the situation. They do not tell others to “be calm.” They simply bring their own calmness to the situation.

The overfunctioning/underfunctioning cycle is triggered when leaders become overly anxious to see something done because they feel solely responsible for the ownership of the organization. The more the leader over functions, the less motivated the followers will be to display initiative. Delegate anxiety rather than responsibility by reducing overfunctioning (Friedman, 1999). Far easier said than done, but this stance is critical to underfunctioners taking their share of responsible ownership for the welfare of the organization. The leader may have to trade the stress of being the “lonely person at the top” for the stress of waiting for others to take initiative and assume partnership status. Underfunctioners will take more responsibility and do their job only if and when they begin to feel anxious about it being done. The self-differentiating leader knows things may get worse before they get better. When someone differentiates in a system (e.g., reduces overfunctioning), the forces to put things back the way they were will intensify before they eventually subside. Differentiation will inevitably trigger sabotage from the least well differentiated. But the enlightened leader anticipates this systemic resistance and is emboldened with the stamina to persist and override the painful anxiety of self-doubt. The self-differentiating leader understands there is no way out of a chronically painful condition except by being willing to go through a temporarily more acute painful phase.

When anxiety fills the ecosystem:

  1. Remain true to your core convictions
  2. Remain true to your vision
  3. Remain true to your plan
  4. Remain decisive
  5. Remain connected and present (relatable)
  6. Remain persistent in the face of sabotage
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realizes that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.

By: Eric Betts

Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University