Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety

In stressful times like these, it's important for leaders to remain calm. Try these strategies to help reduce anxiety for yourself and your teams
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When your organization faces a crisis, strong leadership is more important than ever. To be an effective leader, you must remain calm and help others remain calm, which can be challenging: When you are feeling anxious, people know it – no matter how hard you pretend otherwise.

Anxiety also inhibits your ability to perform at your best and erodes others’ trust in your ability to lead. As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

[ How can you nurture team culture while working remotely? Read also Remote teams: 5 ways to build culture. ]

How anxiety limits crisis leadership

People work best when they are cool, calm, and collected. The more agitated or anxious you are, the less able you are to perform effectively. Neuroscientists call this an “amygdala hijack” because the portion of your brain that controls the fight-or-flight response takes control and overrules your higher brain functions. And while some stress can help you focus and step up in challenging situations, higher levels create anxiety and dramatically reduce performance.

How to address stress

How can you ward off the amygdala hijack – and help your teams do the same? Follow these three steps:

  • Recognize when your feelings have taken over your thinking. Common signs include faster, shallower breathing and a general sense of unease.
  • Make the distinction between your thoughts, your feelings, the story you are creating around what is happening, and what is actually happening. Neuroscientists suggest that what you think determines what you feel, so by consciously choosing different thoughts you can rapidly change how you are feeling.
  • Refocus on what is happening in the moment to break through your heightened anxiety. Doing this can be as simple as spending three to five minutes carefully observing your immediate environment.

A short case study

While some stress can help you focus and step up in challenging situations, higher levels create anxiety and dramatically reduce performance.

One afternoon, I got a call from a staff member who was dealing with an operational emergency during a major system upgrade at one of our data centers. He was feeling overwhelmed and confused about how to handle the very complex and high-stakes situation, which had not been going well.

The advice I gave him seemed counterintuitive at the time: I told him to take a short break, step outside the building, and find a place to sit down. I then asked him what he was sitting on: a low brick wall. I asked him to describe the wall in detail – color, length, height, texture, etc.

Next, I asked him to look at the ground under his feet and describe that in detail. Then I asked him to describe the color of the sky, the clouds, etc. He described the breeze, everything he could smell or hear, and some of the surrounding buildings.

This whole exercise took about five minutes. Finally, I asked him how he was feeling. After a brief pause, he replied that he couldn’t believe it, but he was feeling great.

Why does this exercise work?

Some experts call this practice mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is a simple, logical, and effective process that you can use when you and your teams need a strong dose of “calm down.”

[ Read also: 3 mindfulness exercises to try when you feel overwhelmed. ]

It recognizes that you can’t readily stop your thinking. That’s one of the greatest challenges of meditation, and why it can take weeks or even months of practice before you can realize its benefits.

Most people benefit from a simple mindfulness exercise like the one described above the very first time they try it, and the more you do it, the more positive impact it brings. Do it as often as needed and for as long as it takes to alleviate anxiety.

Share with others

For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic is a uniquely frightening experience that goes well beyond any life challenge we may have experienced. Many challenges remain as we move forward and work through these difficult days. We must all try to be our best, to mitigate our fears, and lead others with confidence and positivity.

I hope this exercise offers a simple, effective way to help you manage anxiety during these troubling times.

[ Want to build your leadership EQ? See 10 emotional intelligence must-reads for leaders. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.


I am offering free group coaching sessions to help organizations apply these tools. Let me know if you can assemble a virtual group for me to address pro bono. First come, first served, based on my availability.