Blog Post: Coaching Anxious Leaders

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Recently, a church hired me to help them transition after the unexpected death of their pastor. My heart broke for them as they grieved this tremendous loss. As I pastored them, it became apparent that they were grieving more than they were transitioning. The congregation had dwindled due to COVID, division, and death until their number was at a bare minimum. They were not dead yet. There was still some youth, still some energy, still some desire. But, in my opinion, they would have to change course to be able to move forward.

I told them they had four options: stay the same, merge with another like-minded church, restart their church with a new name and a new leader, or close the doors and stop. Sometimes it is ok to just stop. Before I presented these options to them, I knew which one they would pick, but I did not know the depth of their reasoning.

Three of the four paths required change. They could not stomach any more change. This became poignant when a deep hearted, wonderful woman said something that struck me to the core: “I’ve lost so much over the last few years that I could not bear it if I lost any of you.”

She is not a whiner. She is not overly nostalgic. In fact, she loves change. She was simply telling the truth. She could not bear any options that required significant change. Her anxiety was at maximum. This reminded me of a quote from two of the foremost experts on leading through change:

“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.”

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

The congregation of this church could not absorb any more disappointment. Disappointment is one of the impetuses that creates anxiety. Grief and injustice are two others. They were full to overflowing, at least for now.

What does this have to do with coaching? I coach a lot of leaders, and I am a leader myself. In three recent coaching conversations, there was a struggle on the leader’s part to offer anything at all disturbing to their people because they did not want to create any more anxiety. Yet, as the coach, I could tell that if they did not take at least some disturbing action, the fallout would be severe.

Let me walk you through these three conversations from a coach’s perspective. (I’ve changed the names and the topics for confidentiality.)

Coaching Lisa

From the get-go, Lisa was anxious. She was venting over everything from professional expectations to her current pay. By the way, it is okay to let your client vent. Lisa had to let off some steam to reduce her internal pressure enough so that we could talk. It took about 40 minutes of our hour.

But, while she vented, I stayed present and listened. As an observer, I could see where the real pain points were, and I felt like she was at a point in the conversation where she could hear it. The organization had some alignment problems. Even though it would be tough, conversations would be required to get key leaders to take responsibility for their part of the mission. If they could not take responsibility, they might need to be replaced. That’s a big change!

These staff members were not inept. The problem was that my client, the leader, did not want to disturb them — life seemed tough enough. Instead, she was inappropriately and unsustainably taking the responsibility on herself. To be honest, I did not feel like I could disappoint my client with this painful truth. She could not absorb it, at least not directly.

I shifted the client’s perspective so she could consider the necessary actions. I asked, “If you were to turn the keys of the organization over to a new leader, what would you need to fix first?” She went straight to the alignment issues. With the little time we had left in the hour, she talked through a plan to correct these issues.

Coaching Roger

Roger seemed defeated. He just wanted a win. He was used to winning. Roger is a charismatic, visionary leader, but lately wins are not coming easy. He was dreaming about finding another place to lead and leaving these difficult issues behind.

I love coaching about dreams or starting something new, and considering all the possibilities, but the coach needs to listen deeply for the true topic. It can largely be intuitive. The dreaming subsided and Roger began to vent about his staff not performing at the level he desired. This felt like the real topic.

I made an observation: “Sounds like you need to have some tough conversations.”

Roger’s response came in one long exhale, “I do not like tough conversations.” I let his statement steep for several seconds. It was like I had knocked on a door, and he was deciding whether to open that door or not. It was a door of disappointing his people at a rate they could absorb. It was not his natural style of leading.

He opened the door, and we partnered together to consider when he should have those conversations and what he should say. He was not any less defeated at the conclusion, but he knew what he had to do to rescue this situation from the jaws of another defeat.

Coaching Brian

In this last scenario, I am not the coach. I am the client. December had been rough on me emotionally. It was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. The first holiday season without her. That, and my family has a history of getting blue (depressed) during the winter. Life feels wrapped in a wet blanket. It is not overwhelming — I still function at a high level — but it does take its toll.

It was a busy day, and I usually encourage my clients to avoid this, but I called my coach while I was driving. He asked the perfunctory opening questions, just to connect and be present. I was not having any of it. I dove right into a topic that was causing me lots of angst. I remember him saying with a slightly tired voice (maybe his voice was not tired; maybe it was my ears), “Sounds like you want to get right at it today.”

I did want to get right at it. My topic was that I had one area of leadership where I was not getting any traction. As seems to be a common theme, it was an alignment issue. I decided I had the wrong people in the right seats. How do I fix this problem?

At CAM, we talk all the time about honoring the client’s agenda, but we also have to help the client discern that agenda. Do not assume the client knows the agenda at the beginning of the conversation. I had the wrong agenda that day.

When I hired this coach over a year ago, the topic was how to lead well in emerging opportunities. He coached me into leading from a place of wisdom and partnership, which has worked extremely well for me. But now, I found myself on the phone with my coach trying to lead from aggression and dictatorship. He was not buying into my agenda.

He led me back to my original agenda (wisdom and partnership) and let me rethink the whole issue from a more appropriate perspective. The issue was that I did not have the emotional energy to do what was right as a leader in this situation. We did not come up with action steps that day, but I did back away from the ledge of making an irrational decision that would have bathed the vision in anxiety.

Conclusion

Anxiety has spilled out over the leadership landscape.  As coaches of leaders, we need to take Martin Linsky’s quote to heart:

“Leadership requires disturbing people – at a rate they can absorb.”

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

The rate that people can absorb right now may be at a seventy-five year low (I do not know what it was like to live through the depression or World War II.) So, even when we feel like change is the best path forward, like I did with the church I was leading, the people we lead may not be able to absorb it.

When a leader begins to disturb people and the people cannot absorb it, the leaders begin to look (and feel) like monsters. As coaches, we need to remember that our clients are struggling with their very identity. We remind them that they are not the problem; they are the solution. We must call them back to their best nature as leaders and encourage them to find the right moments to indeed disturb their people.

I’ll leave you with a few more Heifetz and Linsky quotes from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading:

“When you lead people through difficult change, you take them on an emotional roller coaster because you are asking them to relinquish something—a belief, a value, a behavior—that they hold dear. People can stand only so much change at any one time.”

“Mental health professionals have said for a long time that individuals cannot adapt well to too many life changes at once. If you suffer a loss in the family, change jobs, and move all within a short time, the chances are your own internal stability may break down, or show signs of serious strain.”

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