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Finding Safe Space: Dealing with Anxiety

I wanted to hijack today’s topic because I found it so personally insulting. How dare we consider such a broad-brush statement by M. Scott Peck that, “Almost all of us have spent nearly all of our lives feeling only partially safe, if at all”? To accept such a declaration, we also must accept the notion that we constantly feel threatened or ill at ease. This can’t be true. It is not true for me. Or is it? So I started pawing through my library for some insight.

It turns out that we are basically hardwired to constantly scan our environment for threats to our safety. Our “lizard brain,” the amygdala’s job is to register danger and if necessary, mobilize the body into “fight or flight” mode to help us combat the danger or run to safety. Bob Livingstone, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker writes that, “Many of us have anxious feelings running through our bodies on a regular basis. Those feeling comes in a variety of states; from intense five alarm bells loudly ringing to fear running in the background of our thoughts.”

What do we fear? What do we worry about? Death and dying is the big one. But we also fear making mistakes, saying the wrong things, making poor choices, punishment, being insignificant, and the unknown. Most of us grew up being shamed, blamed, abandoned and rescued in our expressions and emotions. “Life,” said M. Scott Peck, “is a series of problems” and difficulties about which we moan, incessantly worry, and try to avoid. As a result, we suffer emotionally. “Most of us,” said Peck, “are mentally ill to a greater or lesser degree.” Neurosis, said psychologist Carl Jung, or excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession -- in other words fear -- is our constant companion. 

Considering this, what is a servant leader to do?

As a servant leader, it is important to acknowledge and address the fears that individuals may have. Here are a few approaches that a servant leader can take:

1.     Foster a safe and supportive environment: Create a culture where team members feel comfortable expressing their fears and concerns without fear of judgment or punishment. Encourage open communication and actively listen to their worries. When I actively led teams in both military and civilian worlds, I developed a habit of listening between the lines for what was not being said. For it's between the lines, covered in a blanket that we find the hurts, frustrations, and fears that everyone carries. Recall Maslow's Hierarchy. It's only when we address, and alleviate, those underlying fears, frustrations, and hurts, that we can clear the way to helping followers move forward toward self-actualization. Incidentally, it's also between that lines that we sometimes hide our greatest joys.

2.     Lead by example: Demonstrate vulnerability by sharing your own fears and insecurities. This helps to create a sense of relatability and trust within the team. The example we read by Lao Tzu misleads us into thinking that leaders lead from the background. Not so! True servant leaders are up to their elbows in the same muck as everyone else. As John Maxwell says, "A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way." The key difference is that the leader makes sure that the followers get the satisfaction and rewards that come with a job well done.

3.     Provide guidance and support: Offer guidance and mentorship to help individuals overcome their fears and build confidence. This can include offering training or resources, setting realistic goals, and providing constructive feedback. I developed my own variation of Management By Walking Around. It was Management by Coffee Cup. Most days began with a walk around the shops, coffee cup in hand, and just asking folks how things are going and what can I do to help?

4.     Encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes: Create an environment where taking risks and making mistakes is seen as a valuable learning opportunity. Encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zones and embrace new challenges. As one of you said and as was taught to me by some of my mentors, "If you aren't breaking something, you aren't trying hard enough." There is a Command Philosophy espoused by the US Marines. Mistakes are inevitable. Own the results and learn from the results.

5.     Celebrate successes: Recognize and celebrate the achievements and successes of team members. This helps to build confidence and encourages individuals to overcome their fears in pursuit of further growth. An old First Sergeant who worked for me had a saying that I absolutely love, "Mankind's premier propulsion system is a well-timed pat on the back." His only requirement was that it had to be immediate, specific, and authentic.

In the end, I believe we must remember that fear is always present to a greater or lesser degree, that addressing fears is an ongoing process, and it requires listening, empathy, patience, and understanding from a servant leader. By creating a supportive environment and providing the necessary guidance, a servant leader can help individuals overcome their fears and reach their full potential.

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