I would not have readily chosen “anxiety” as the word to characterize my low experiences in leadership. Frustration, yes. Loneliness, yes. Overwhelmed, yes. Disappointment, yes. But I have not often thought of myself as suffering with anxiety. That is, I had not identified my struggles in leadership as anxiety until I read (listened to) Steve Cuss’ book, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs. I now realize that anxiety has often been at the root of many of these struggles.

In this blog post, I want to continue the theme of the last couple of blog posts – reviewing helpful books on leadership. As was true of both previous blog posts, these books are not only for those in formal leadership roles. All of us in cross-cultural missions are leaders if we are seeking to lead people to change their thinking, beliefs and lifestyle. “Managing Leadership Anxiety” therefore applies to all of us who sense a call to disciple the nations to become followers of Jesus.

Leaders need to manage their own anxiety first

Besides being an author, Steve Cuss is a pastor who began his ministry as a trauma and hospice chaplain. In helping families deal with grief and loss, he learned that he needed to first of all manage his own anxiety. He needed to understand what was going inside of himself before he could truly connect with others. When he became a lead pastor of a rapidly growing church, he realized that anxiety came with that role as well. Cuss needed to develop ways of thinking and behaving that allowed him to manage that anxiety.

The goal of managing anxiety is not simply for relief, it is to connect more fully with God and to raise awareness of what God is doing. Anxiety blocks our awareness of God because it takes our subconscious attention. This means that anxiety can be an early detection system that we’re depending on something other than God for our well-being.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 17).

Not knowing what to do

Cuss defines leadership as knowing what to do. But as leaders, we often don’t know what to do. Yet we have to do something, because we are leaders. This makes us very uncomfortable and leads to anxiety. We worry because we can’t control what is going to happen. We are not sure that we have adequate information, wisdom, or training to tackle the task before us. As leaders, we wish that someone would tell us what to do or that we could be certain of a particular outcome. As Cuss says:

I believe leadership anxiety is generated when we think we need something in any particular moment that we don’t actually need. When I began as a hospital chaplain, I would get anxious walking into a room because I believed I needed to know what to say or what to do. As much as I believed I needed that, it wasn’t true.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 18). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Die to self

His approach to managing anxiety is clearly Gospel-centered. Cuss says that when we are anxious, we are typically depending on ourselves (our “false self”) rather than on God. We need to die to this false self. We must come to recognize that we don’t really need what we think we need to lead.

One effective tool that has helped drive this home for me is a simple prayer I frequently offer to God: Jesus died so I don’t have to _________ anymore. For each of us, the blank is different. For me, it is usually some variation of, “Jesus died so I don’t have to seek people’s approval anymore” or “Jesus died so every sermon does not have to be gold standard anymore.”

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 27).

The sources of anxiety

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 talk about the sources of anxiety. Cuss encourages his readers to pay attention to their bodies or mind in order to recognize the onset of anxiety. Anxiety is often triggered by a false belief, a previous experience or a story we tell ourselves. But anxiety can also be generated by others when they send mixed messages, put us in a double bind, find ourselves in a triangulated relationship. The author discusses each of them (and several others as well). He then gives some helpful tools to deal with these triggers and relational tensions.

Look at the process, not just the content

In chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9, Cuss dives more deeply into tools that can help us diffuse anxiety. Chapter 6 begins with showing how an understanding of systems is essential for managing anxiety and bringing about lasting change. He encourages us to pay attention to how people are relating (process) rather than just to what is being said (content) in the interpersonal interaction.

Differentiation is a foundational concept for managing anxiety in the book. Leaders need to differentiate what is happening inside of them from what is happening in the people they are leading. I was already familiar with this concept from Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve“, an author and leadership consultant to whom Cuss is deeply indebted. While Friedman’s work is brilliant, “Managing Leadership Anxiety” is much more accessible and understandable.

Differentiation will not remove the anxiety but will make sure that your anxiety does not infect the group you are seeking to lead.

Differentiation is the ability to be fully yourself while being fully connected to people. It is gaining clarity on where “I” end and the “other” begins. A differentiated person allows space between herself and another, even when that other person is highly anxious or asking for rescue. A differentiated leader is clear on her own values and convictions and is not easily swayed from them.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 119).

Tools for managing anxiety

Here are some tools mentioned in the book that I believe will be helpful in managing anxiety:

  • Create a concrete, life-giving list – relationships, locations and activities that replenish you.
  • Consider your capacity to care for people. When do we need to pour ourselves out for others and when do we need to fill our own tanks first?
  • Workload scrub. On an annual basis, go through your tasks and eliminate those things that do not need to be there.
  • Listen to learn rather than listening to defend.
  • Own one’s mistakes, analyze them for what you can learn, and move on.
  • Recognize who is moving toward you and who is not, and realize that you cannot lead those who are moving away from you.
  • Intentionally move toward the person you are struggling with.
  • Don’t be too earnest. Relieve the tension with humor or playfulness.
  • Genograms. Understand the family patterns that you have inherited.
  • Verbatims – Understand how you show up in conversations by recording verbatim what actually happened in a conversation and what was going on inside of you at the time.

Common experiences of leaders

The final chapter talks about some common challenges that leaders face in their leadership development. Cuss identifies three common themes he has noticed when talking to leaders about their experiences.

  1. Leaders are often asked to take on leadership roles at a young age when they feel ill-equipped for that role.
  2. Leaders are often burned by the organization they love.
  3. Leaders constantly need to reinvent the way that they lead.

Although I would not have been able to state these three themes as clearly as Cuss has, I have seen the same patterns in my own experience and those of other leaders I know. Recognizing that these are common to most developing leaders is reassuring. As stressful as these experiences are, we can take comfort in that they are not unusual and do not indicate that there is something wrong with us.

Leadership development requires managing anxiety

Steve Cuss believes that the best leadership development is taking on new responsibilities (stretch assignments) that are a little beyond one’s comfort level. I would definitely concur. I have written about the value of accepting new challenges and learning by doing in a couple of previous posts. See “Stress – Too Much and Too Little” and “Is Learning by Doing Better than Learning through Courses?“.

But by being willing to learn by doing something that we have never done, we have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes and failures. This reality can create much anxiety. But nevertheless, doing so is critical to learning and growing as an organization and as a person. So the author encourages us to go ahead and make those mistakes.

As you navigate some of the tools in this book, I encourage you to find situations where you don’t know what to do, move into them, and then reflect on the experience.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (pp. 184-185).

Maybe, like me, you have not thought that you were struggling with anxiety in your leadership roles and responsibilities. Or maybe you recognize that you wage an ongoing battle with anxiety. I would recommend this book to both groups. Learning to recognize that we are anxious and then figuring out biblically-based ways to manage that anxiety are critical for authentically connecting with God and with the people we are seeking to disciple and lead.