Have you ever had the experience of waking up one day, finding yourself in a leadership role that you did not own yesterday? Something like that happened to me. I began my career in education as a teacher in the classroom and was ultimately promoted into a high-level administrative position.
One of the assumptions that I had always made was that the more knowledge and life experience I gained, the more comfortable I would be leading others. I have since learned that this isn’t necessarily the case. I experienced that knowledge, responsibility, and even age can actually increase anxiety.
I was able to grow up a little “under the radar”, which was a helpful start for me.
Growing up the youngest of three in a household of high expectations, the success of my two siblings took much of the pressure off me during my early years. I was able to grow up a little “under the radar”, which was a helpful start for me. But then as an adult, things gradually changed for me, first professionally and then personally. I started my career as a middle school English teacher and progressed from the autonomy of my own classroom to being hired to oversee the merging of three schools into one campus. In the few years between, I entered administrative roles where my knowledge, awareness of complexity and my own self-doubt all grew in unison. When promoted into my current role, I discovered that merging three unique school cultures in the midst of these layers of uncertainty increased the anxiety of everyone, myself included. People frequently asked me questions I did not have the answers for: “What will I be teaching? Who will I be teaching with? Where will my room be?” My lack of clear answers only increased the level of chronic anxiety in them and me. I often found myself alone, full of doubt and wondering what leadership traits others saw in me that I couldn’t see in myself.
My lack of clear answers only increased the level of chronic anxiety in them and me.
At the same time, both of my parents had increasingly acute health concerns. My relationship with them and with my siblings began to change. Conversations turned uncomfortable. Every decision had a corresponding trade off and our family system experienced a fair amount of stress. Roles were redefined and reshuffled in pretty uncomfortable ways. As the youngest of three, what was my role?
Fortunately, I began learning about Resilient Leadership Development. A Resilient Leadership concept that I have found to be particularly helpful is striving to become a “Less Anxious Presence.” In Resilient Leadership terms, “a leader who exudes a less anxious presence embodies and communicates an inner calm in a way that helps others to lower their anxiety.” I also learned that a leader’s presence is highly contagious, so I worked on developing that inner calm and to be the least anxious person in the room. It means to work to understand the surrounding environment and to consider what action (or inaction) I should take next.
In Resilient Leadership terms, “a leader who exudes a less anxious presence embodies and communicates an inner calm in a way that helps others to lower their anxiety.”
For me, these simultaneous changes in my professional and personal life made being a Less Anxious Presence challenging. Yet through these experiences, and the personal development I achieved through one-on-one coaching with a Resilient Leadership expert, I have increasingly found my footing. In Resilient Leadership this process is referred to as working to “stay calm, stay the course, and stay connected.” I regularly reflect on my own professional and personal guiding principles (stay the course) and base my decisions on these.
When I grow increasingly anxious, I center myself (stay calm) and then these core beliefs give me a strong foundation with others (stay connected).
I remain a work in progress and all too often revert back to anxiety driven patterns. But when I do revert back, I refocus on my lifelong journey to “stay calm, stay the course and stay connected.” As I do that, I become a calmer and more effective leader, truly a Less Anxious Presence.
Susan Palchesko is the current principal at Brunswick Middle School in Brunswick, Ohio. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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