Leadership: Why Worry?
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Question: Is it possible to be a leader without worrying?
I think it is. But there’s lots of evidence and intuition to the contrary. The leader, especially the leader of a large organization, has plenty of things to worry about – the success of the company and its survival, the many forces in the environment that threaten success and survival, and simply how to best manage or lead the employees that have signed on.
The leader also has many personal things to worry about – am I wearing the right clothes for this occasion, what are all those people looking at me and listening to me thinking, and what will my spouse say when I get home late – again! It’s no wonder that American presidents (and other significant leaders) seem to age at about five times the rate of others during the time they are in office!
Let’s try to unpack this a little by differentiating between worry and concern. Worry is a strong feeling of anxiety, a vague, unpleasant emotion that is experienced in advance of something happening. As long as worry doesn’t overwhelm the person, worrying is a natural and common response to events that might threaten the person or the organization. And, even more positively, worrying usually occurs because the leader really cares about the outcome and wants the right thing to happen.
But worrying can also have a more damaging side. Intense worrying can lead to mental health issues, self-medication through drugs or alcohol, or even more serious “breakdowns.” Too much worrying is itself something to worry about!
But you can control the extent of your worrying. Stress-reduction techniques, the practice of meditation or mindfulness, and personal counseling can help. And indeed anything that makes the workplace a happier place to be, for the leader as well as followers, reduces the tendency to worry too much. (I can’t resist this: Hubert Humphrey, senator, vice-president, and presidential candidate was known as the “Happy Warrior.” Maybe we need some “Happy Worriers.”)
An even better approach, however, is to turn worry into concern. Being concerned means being interested and engaged in an issue, being attentive to it and striving for a solution. It doesn’t mean that we are filled with anxiety. That’s not to say that concern is just an analytic way of looking at problems. Concern certainly has an analytic side, but it is based in the same feelings of caring and commitment to a cause or an organization that worrying does. It just manifests itself in more positive ways.
A healthy concern for the organization, your role in it, and how both relate to the rest of your life should not be allowed to evolve into excessive worrying. As a leader, you need to be compassionate not only to your employees, but also to yourself. Give yourself a break. At some point you simply have to say: “I’ve done all I can do.” “It’s out of my hands now.” “Let the fates decide.”
Worrying about something rarely changes outcomes; indeed, it clouds the process of changing outcomes. Concern, and the clarity it requires, on the other hand, actually opens up new avenues for success. So, don’t worry, be happy – but better yet, be concerned.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.